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Quick & dirty Social Security
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As many of you might guess, there are some questions that I am asked over and over again. And every once in a while, I like to write a column in which I cover as many of these common questions as possible. Today, I will give quick and dirty answers to ten of them. In many respects, I don't like doing this because there are so many variables and exceptions associated with almost all Social Security rules. So when I give short and concise answers, I will inevitably have to leave out the ifs, ands or buts that are often needed to clarify the answer. But today, I'm going to sacrifice quality for quantity.

Q: Is my Social Security benefit based on my highest 10 years of earnings, or my last three?

A: A Social Security retirement benefit is based on your average inflation-adjusted monthly income using a 35-year base of earnings.

Q: If I start to work part time a few years shy of age 62, will my benefits be severely cut because I have reduced earnings just before retirement?

A: Because your benefit is based on a 35-year base of earnings, the impact of some years of reduced or even no earnings is greatly lessened. Your eventual Social Security benefit won't be as high as it would have been had you kept working full time right up to your retirement date. But you should not lose too much sleep over the relatively minor impact of early retirement on your Social Security checks.

Q: If I work after I start getting Social Security, I'm forced to pay Social Security taxes. Will those the extra taxes increase my Social Security check?

A: You would get an automatic increase in your monthly retirement benefit only if your current income exceeds the lowest (inflation-adjusted) year of earnings used in your original Social Security benefit computation.

Q: I heard that because I served in the military, I will get a bonus added to my Social Security check. Do I have to specifically request this bonus?

A: If you served in the military anytime from World War II through 2001, special wage credits are automatically added to your Social Security record. How much is added depends on the period of time you were in the military. You do not have to ask for these credits. But frankly, they are so minimal that they rarely have much, if any, impact on a veteran's Social Security benefit.

Q: As a wife, I should be getting half of my husband's Social Security, right?

A: You get half if you wait until age 66 to claim those benefits. But spousal benefits are reduced about one-half of one percent for each month they are taken prior to that age.

Q: Can I take benefits on my spouse's record at 62 and switch to full benefits on my own at 66?

A: No. If you take any kind of reduced, i.e., pre-age 66, Social Security benefit, that reduction carries over to any other benefits you might be due. (This rule does not apply to widows.) But if you wait until age 66, you can take benefits from your spouse and switch to your own at age 70, which would come with a 32 percent bonus.

Q: Is it true I must be married for 10 years before I qualify for benefits on my husband's Social Security record?

A: The 10-year duration of marriage rule applies only to divorced women. If you are still married to your husband, that marriage needs to have lasted only one year in order for you to claim benefits on his record.

Q: I was married to my first wife for 20 years and my second wife for 25 years and counting. My first wife never remarried. If my ex gets benefits on my record, will that reduce what my current wife can get?

A: No. All Social Security monies from your account paid to a divorced spouse are "add on" benefits. They do not take a nickel away from what your current wife may be due on your record.

Q: I am about to retire and I have a 15-year-old daughter. She will only get benefits on my record if I die, right?

A: Wrong. Minor children of retirees are eligible for monthly dependent's benefits, generally until age 18.

Q: I am disabled and considering filing for Social Security. I was told I must hire a lawyer because all first-time disability claims are automatically rejected. True?

A: False. About 30 percent of all initial claims for disability benefits are approved. You should consider getting a lawyer only if your claim is denied, you appeal and are scheduled for a hearing before a Social Security judge.