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Laurence Kotlikoff Answers Your Social Security Questions

During our March 18 hour on Laurence Kotlikoff's new book detailing the best way to get the most Social Security benefits you're owed, many of you wrote and called in with questions. We couldn't answer all of them, but Kotlikoff was gracious enough to answer a good number of your queries right here.

(He also reminds listeners that he's answered more questions like these for years with our friends at PBS News Hour.)


If a person has not worked since the fall of 2012 but paid into the SS system for almost 40 years how does this negatively affect the amount due?

If you keep working and earn enough to raise you average indexed monthly earnings (AIME), which will occur if you replace the lowest of your 35 highest indexed (through age 60, but counted in nominal terms after age 60) annual covered earnings amounts , Social Security will recompute your benefits and raise them.  You can be working at age 100 and still raise your benefits above and beyond any adjustment for inflation.  And if your ex's, spouse, or children are collecting on your work record, they will receive higher benefits as well.  As we point out in Get What's Yours, if you are earning more than the covered earnings ceiling ($118,500 this year) your AIME and, thus, your benefit will automatically go up.

Should we be encouraging a means test on SSA benefits?

​Perhaps, but the benefit formula is already highly progressive and the taxation of the benefits under the income tax is progressive.   I think we need to look comprehensively at fiscal progressivity, taking all tax and transfer programs into effect.  I should have a study on this (co-authored with UC Berkeley economist, Alan Auerbach) completed in a couple of months

​I'm 50, have over $300k in 401k. I want to retire by 63. How worried should I be?
Plenty. Start to save like crazy and work as long as possible.  You could live to 100.

How would you go about replacing SS with a basic income? How high should it be?

My company (www.economicsecurityplanning.com) has a life-cycle financial planning program called Economic Security Planner (ESPlanner), which may be of help. ​<

I was married and then divorced after 18 years. Neither of us ever remarried. He is now deceased. I was told I could collect widows benefits at age 62 on his benefits? Is this true? Who would I seek help from to be an advocate for me if SS gives me the run-around?

​You can collect widow's benefits at 60 (they will be reduced) and at 50 if you are disabled.  SS will get this straight.  It's not a tough case.  The question is should you take your widow's benefit first or your retirement benefit first.  My company's www.maximizemysocialsecurity.com program costs $40, but can answer this question. ​

I was married for close to 25 years and worked part-time paying little or nothing to my SS. My former husband, on the other hand, will collect quite large SS benefits. I remarried and my current husband will have modest SS benefits while mine will be minimal. Why I cannot claim my former husband's benefits since I honestly earned it contributing to raising our family? Why women are punished for remarrying?

If you remarried after age 60 you can collect a divorcee widow's benefit on your ex. If you married before age 60 you can, I believe, get divorced from your current husband ​once your ex dies and you are over 60 and then remarry your current husband.  This should permit you to collect on your dead ex.   I believe this is perfectly legal, but you might double check with SSA.

My father passed away at age 64. He began receiving reduced benefits at 62. My father's benefits are much greater than my mother's. Can my mother begin taking her reduced benefit at age 62, and then switch to survivor benefits at full retirement age? If so, I understand that the full survivor benefit will be based on the reduced benefit my father was receiving.

Yes, but because your dad took his benefit early, your mom's widow's benefit may stop rising before she reaches full retirement age.  Our program at www.maximizemysocialsecurity.com can suggest precisely what she should do.

I am turning 65, intending to wait until 70 for Social Security. I understand that Medicare will be charged to my Social Security; how so, if I don't take Social Security until 70?

​Your understanding is incorrect.  You'll need to pay for your Medicare Part B premiums out of your own pocket until you reach 70.  Don't delay signing up for Medicare because they will raise the premiums on you for the rest of your natural life if you delay signing up,​ unless you have qualified coverage through an employer group health plan.

Do I need to verify the accuracy of salaries reported to SS earned from employers 20-40 years ago? If so, how?<

​Go to the ssa.gov website and pull up your earnings record and see if it looks correct.

I'm 51, on SSI since the age of 37. I was separated from my ex husband, just under ten years but not legally, until my divorce 6 years later. I am not remarried. He is not either, though maybe in the future. Are there any options , or is my case very straightforward?

​You can collect spousal benefits on each other's work record.  If you are disabled, your spousal benefit will be your excess spousal benefit and if you take it early (at or after age 62 but before full retirement age) it will be reduced.  It could well be zero depending on whether your disability benefit is larger than half his full retirement benefit.

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