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POSTED February 1, 2013 9:02 p.m.

Q: In a recent column, you advised a woman not to work just to build up her own Social Security account because she would get higher benefits as a spouse on her husband's Social Security record. I think you did this woman a disservice. You failed to mention important disability protection she could earn by working and paying taxes on her own account. You also didn't tell her husband about survivor's benefits he might be due on his wife's record if she should die before he does — benefits he wouldn't get if she doesn't work and pay Social Security taxes.

A: I don't think I did the reader a disservice. I considered the disability and survivor benefit options but decided they were not worth bringing up — and certainly not worth all the Social Security taxes she would pay for very minimal return. Before I explain my reasoning, let me review the situation.

A 57-year-old woman had spent her life as a homemaker. She was considering taking a job and wondered if it would be worth it from a Social Security perspective. I told her that if she was taking a job to help fulfill her life or to bring extra income into the household, then she should go for it. But if she was working just to get the Social Security credits, then it was probably not a very good idea. That's because anything she might be due on her record would just reduce what she will already be able to get on her husband's account. Based on what she told me about her husband's situation, she would be due about $600 per month in wife's benefits on her husband's record at age 62. (He is 10 years older than she is.) And whatever she gets in retirement benefits, probably less than $200, would simply reduce what she is due from her husband, so she'd end up with the same amount of monthly Social Security benefits.

You are right that she would potentially be due disability benefits if she worked and paid Social Security taxes. But she would have to work for about five years before that disability protection would kick in. In other words, she wouldn't qualify for disability until age 62. And again, at that point, whatever disability payment she received (maybe about $500 monthly), would come off the top of spousal benefits she is due, leaving her with the same total Social Security benefits.

In her case, the only advantage to qualifying for Social Security disability benefits at age 62 is that she would get Medicare coverage at age 64, as opposed to waiting until the normal Medicare eligibility age of 65. (People on Social Security disability get Medicare coverage two years after their benefits start.) So if she wanted to work and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for five years, based on the slim chance that she might become disabled and thus get Medicare one year before she'd normally qualify for it, she should go ahead and work. But I don't think that makes much sense.

And there is even less reason to work and pay taxes in order for her husband to get survivor's benefits on her record. He is getting a much higher Social Security retirement benefit than she would ever be due. So that means that he would never qualify for any monthly widower's benefits on her account. The only survivor's benefit he would be due, on the off chance that his much younger wife might die before he does, is the very meager one-time $255 death benefit. It would be totally pointless for his wife to work and pay thousands of dollars in Social Security taxes so that he possibly could someday get a check for 255 bucks!

Q: In a recent column, you mentioned the annual cost-of-living-adjustment that Social Security beneficiaries, like me, got this year. But you didn't tell the whole story. You failed to mention that Medicare premiums went up, wiping out a big chunk of our Social Security increase.

A: As I've explained many times in this column, I am a retired Social Security guy, and I write a column about Social Security issues. The column you refer to summarized the Social Security changes for 2013 — not the Medicare changes.

I know most people tend to equate Social Security and Medicare. But they are two separate government programs administered by two separate government agencies. The Social Security Administration's only role in Medicare is to enroll people in the program. After that, the agency essentially washes its hands of Medicare business. As a retired SSA employee, I tend to wash my hands of Medicare issues, too.

But since you brought it up, I will point out that the Medicare Part B premium paid by all but the most well-to-do beneficiaries went up from $99.90 in 2012 to $104.90 in 2013 — a five dollar monthly increase. The average monthly Social Security retirement benefit went up $21 this year, so factoring in the Medicare increase, most people's net Social Security check increased by $17.

As I pointed out in the column on Social Security changes, the annual COLA increase is based on changes to an inflation-measuring tool called the Consumer Price Index. But changes to the Medicare Part B premium are tied to increases in the cost of health care. Specifically, the law says the Part B premium must cover 25 percent of the costs of running that part of the Medicare program. The taxpayers pick up the other 75 percent. I predict that any coming reforms to the Medicare program will call for its beneficiaries to pick up a larger percentage of program costs.

 

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