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Truth or dare

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POSTED November 9, 2012 10:32 p.m.

Q: Before I ask a question, I must tell you my story. I was married to my first husband for 23 years. We divorced in 1995. He died several years ago. I married a second time in 1998, but this marriage turned out to be a mistake. A couple years after we got married, he just up and left me. I really don't know where he went. I only heard from him once, and that was about ten years ago. He told me he was getting a divorce. But I have no idea if he ever went ahead with that. And frankly, at the time, I didn't care. I was just glad that he was out of my life!

Fast forward to today and now I'm about to turn 62. I want to file for widow's benefits from my first husband. I called Social Security's toll-free number and told them the same story I told you. The lady on the phone told me not to worry about my second marriage and to make an appointment to file for widow's benefits. I told her I needed to think about it. A couple weeks later, I called again and talked to someone else. I repeated my story. This guy advised me to apply for widow's benefits and not mention my second marriage during the application process. Now I don't know what to do. Should I file for widow's benefits? Should I simply not bring up the second marriage?

A: There are two things you should do: Make an appointment to file for widow's benefits and tell the truth!

The Social Security Administration representative who told you not to mention your second marriage should be fired. He was telling you to lie and commit fraud.

But the agency representative who told you "not to worry" about your second marriage may have been on to something. I'm guessing she checked Social Security records and learned that your second husband had died. She may have just been overly cautious about privacy rules and therefore didn't share that information with you. With him out of the picture, so to speak, you would be eligible for benefits on your first husband's account.

Even if husband number two isn't dead, you should still file for widow's benefits on your first husband's account immediately. By doing so, this establishes your legal rights to claim such benefits. As part of the process, you are going to have to prove that you are divorced from your second husband. And SSA will help you track down divorce papers. If you are successful and can prove you are divorced, you will start getting widow's benefits from husband number one.

If you are not successful and learn you are still legally married to Mr. Wonderful — I mean your second husband — then SSA will simply deny your claim for widow's benefits.

Then you can decide to start divorce proceedings. Once they are finalized, reapply for widow's benefits from your first husband. Or; if for whatever reason you want to cling to your marriage to Mr. W., and assuming he is over age 62 and getting Social Security, you could file for wife's benefits on his account.

Finally, you never mentioned if you have worked and paid into Social Security yourself. If you have, then of course you are always entitled to claim your own retirement benefits anytime you want.

Q: I am about to turn age 65. I am already getting Social Security. How do I apply for Medicare and Medicaid?

A: Before I answer your question, I have to clarify one issue. You will not be applying for "Medicare and Medicaid." You will be signing up for two different parts of the Medicare program: Part A — hospital insurance and Part B — medical insurance.

You made the same mistake that millions of confused Americans make. You incorrectly referred to Medicare's medical insurance program, or Part B, as "Medicaid." But Medicaid is a completely separate program from Medicare. To put it simply, Medicaid is a welfare program and Medicare isn't.

You get Medicare Part A coverage if you work and pay Medicare taxes, or if you are married to someone who qualifies for Medicare Part A. And anyone over 65, or anyone who has been getting Social Security disability benefits for two years, can buy Medicare Part B coverage. Medicare is administered by a federal agency called the Health Care Financing Administration. But, the Social Security Administration handles the application process.

You can get Medicaid only if your income and assets are below certain limits (that vary from one state to another). In other words, you only get Medicaid if you are poor. Each state's welfare or social services department administers Medicaid.

Here is another way to think of the difference. When Bill Gates turns 65, he will get Medicare coverage — both Parts A and B. But Bill Gates will never ever qualify for Medicaid.

Now, back to your question. Normally, people turning 65 have to contact their local Social Security office to apply for Medicare. But if you are already getting Social Security benefits, the application process is automatic. In other words, a couple months before your 65th birthday, you will get a "Medicare Enrollment Package" in the mail. Assuming you want both Parts A and B of Medicare (and 95 percent of all seniors need and take both parts), then you do nothing. You simply take the Medicare card out of the package and keep it in a safe place. Beginning with the first day of the month you turn 65, you automatically will be a Medicare beneficiary.

 

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