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Many readers confused about Social Security

Recent columns on Social Security benefits have prompted an avalanche of reader mail showing widespread misunderstandings about benefit rules.

For example, many of you incorrectly believe that a lower-earner spouse is always entitled to half the main wage earner’s benefit, or that the full retirement age is still 65 (if you become 65 this year, you have to wait 10 more months to claim unreduced benefits).

As to your questions, most are clearly answered in Social Security publications and on the agency’s much-improved Web site (www.socialsecurity.gov). You can also try your local Social Security office or call the agency’s toll-free number, 800-772-1213.

Some common questions:

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Q: How can I learn how much less I will receive by filing for benefits at age 62 instead of 65 or 69? I’m not sure the age I must be to file for full benefits.

A: The answers may be in your mailbox. For 10 years, the Social Security Administration has been mailing workers 25 and over an annual statement estimating their benefits. (You can also request one at any time.)

Estimates are given for three ages: 62, which is the earliest you can claim benefits; the “full” retirement age, which depends on when you were born and is rising gradually until it becomes 67 for those born in 1960 or later; and age 70. Up to age 70, your benefits increase for every month you delay filing beyond your full retirement age.

The annual Social Security statement, mailed about three months before each person’s birthday, explains how to determine your full retirement age, how much benefits are reduced if claimed early and how much they are enhanced by waiting.

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Q: My wife is approaching retirement and wondering whether to take her own benefit (reduced or not) or the spousal benefit. I’m not sure she has a choice or how she finds how much she’ll receive. If she does choose, is this a permanent election? I shudder to think I have to wade through Social Security publications for the rules.

A: Granted they are not page-turners, but that’s where the rules are.

In your question, you did not say whether you have already filed for your benefits. If you have, when your wife files she will receive the higher of her own benefit based on her work record or the spousal benefit (technically, Social Security, which does all the math, pays her own benefit first and then adds to it if the spousal benefit is higher).

If your wife files for benefits before you do, the only thing she can receive until you file is the benefit based on her work record (the annual Social Security statement would give her an estimate). Once you file, your wife will begin receiving the spousal benefit if that is higher than her own.

The spousal benefit is a percentage, up to 50 percent, of the “primary benefit amount” of the higher-earner spouse (you, in this case). The primary benefit amount is the benefit you are entitled to receive at your full retirement age. Even if you file early and receive reduced benefits, or delay filing beyond your full retirement age to receive enhanced benefits, the spousal benefit is still a percentage of your primary benefit amount, not necessarily of the actual benefit you receive.

That percentage is 50 percent if your wife waits until her full retirement age to file for benefits. If she files early, the percentage is permanently reduced.

The amount of the reduction depends on what your wife’s full retirement age is. If she turns 62 any time between now and 2016 (her full retirement age would be 66) and files for benefits at 62, her spousal benefit will be 35 percent of your primary benefit amount. For somebody turning 62 in 2022 and filing for benefits then (full retirement age would be 67), it would be only 32.5 percent.

Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column and communicate about their retirement plans. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com or GVCruz@aol.com.

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