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Limited retroactivity for Social Security benefits
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Q: When I turned 62 about 8 months ago, I was getting unemployment benefits. Those benefits recently ended so I went to file for my Social Security. The clerk who was helping me with my retirement application told me that I could have filed for retirement at age 62. I didn't do that because I was under the impression that I could not get unemployment and Social Security at the same time. So I asked to backdate my Social Security application to the month I turned 62, but I was told I couldn't do that. The clerk said retroactive benefits are not payable. I think this is wrong and I plan to appeal their decision. After all, these are benefits I earned and the government owes me my money. Could you please give me your opinion on this?

A: I won't give you an opinion. I will give you the facts. And I'm afraid the facts are that you messed up. The Social Security ball was in your court, and you dropped it. There are two main points I need to make here. One has to do with the law, and one has to do with that ball you fumbled away.

The law, at least the law since 1991, says that Social Security retirement benefits filed before age 66 cannot be paid retroactively. Benefits are effective with the month you file for them, or some near future month, but not for any past months. (Claims filed after age 66 can be paid retroactively for up to six months - but never before the month you attain age 66.)

The second point I need to make is that you are responsible for figuring out when to file for your Social Security benefits. You should have taken some steps when you were approaching your 62nd birthday to educate yourself about your potential eligibility for Social Security. With a simple phone call to the Social Security Administration (800-772-1213), you would have learned that you can collect Social Security retirement benefits and unemployment compensation at the same time.

You said, "The government owes me my money." Had SSA made a mistake, then yes, they would owe you the back pay benefits. (Retroactive benefits can generally be paid if it can be shown that an SSA employee gave you false information.) But in this case, you made the mistake — so now you are paying the consequences.

Q: My stepfather died about five years ago. He was divorced from my mother. They had lost touch, and we only recently learned of his death. So last month, she filed for Social Security divorced widow's benefits to supplement her own retirement benefits. She is 77 years old. They paid her six months worth of retroactive benefits. But we think she should get benefits all the way back to the time of her ex-husband's death. We think Social Security should have notified my mother of her eligibility for widow's benefits when my stepfather died. The Social Security people said no. What do you say?

A: I also say no. Widow's claims filed after age 66 usually come with a six-month limitation on retroactivity. (Widows who file before age 66 generally cannot be paid retroactive benefits, although there are some limited exceptions.)

As explained in the first answer, it was your mother's responsibility to be aware of her potential eligibility for divorced widow's benefits. You claim that "Social Security should have notified [her]." But there is simply no way that the Social Security Administration can keep tabs on every man, woman and child in this country, and then tell them when they should apply for all the various kinds of Social Security benefits potentially payable.

Having said that, I should point out that they would have tried to contact her if there was an indication in their records of a possible claim. For example, had your mother been getting divorced wife's benefits on this man's record at the time that SSA learned of his death, they would have written or called her inviting her to file for widow's benefits.

Q: I filed for my Social Security at age 66, but immediately suspended my benefits. I did this so that my wife could get spousal benefits on my record. I am now 68, and I do not plan to start my own retirement benefits until age 70, in order to get the delayed retirement bonus. In a recent column, you said that if I change my mind and decide to take my Social Security before 70, I could claim retroactive benefits back to age 66. But my financial advisor told me I am limited to six months of back pay. Who is right?

A: If you've read the answers to the previous questions, you would guess your financial advisor is right. After all, I just said that Social Security benefits can be paid up to six months retroactively if the claim is filed after age 66.

But here is the difference in your situation. You actually filed your Social Security application at age 66 — then suspended your benefits with the intention of waiting until age 70 to start taking those benefits. But if you changed your mind tomorrow and decided you want benefits now at age 68, you would NOT be filing a new claim for benefits (a claim that would come with six months retroactivity). You would simply be "unsuspending" the claim you filed when you were 66. So you could choose to have your unsuspended benefits paid all the way back to that date. However, those benefits would not include any delayed retirement bonus. Or, you could choose to start your benefits at age 68 and get 24 months worth of those bonus credits.