DEAR CARRIE: I started collecting Social Security benefits about 16 years ago, when I turned 65. I currently receive about $2,200 a month. My son, who is 43 and mentally disabled, has been collecting Social Security disability benefits under my work record since he was about 20 years old. He was receiving $1,200 a month. My wife, who is 63 and hasn’t worked much over the years, recently filed for spousal benefits and was initially told she qualified for $900 a month. But then we learned that because my son is also collecting on my earnings record, her monthly amount would be cut to $650 and his would be reduced to $900. Is this legal? — Diminished Benefits
DEAR DIMINISHED BENEFITS: First a point of clarification: If your son was receiving $1,200 a month, he was probably receiving half of your primary insurance amount, or the Social Security benefit you qualify for, said Linda Lauria, a spokeswoman in the agency’s Manhattan office. That full amount is probably $2,400, with deductions for Medicare Part B premiums lowering it to $2,200, she said.
Now, the amount of benefits that can be paid out each month under a retiree’s Social Security record is capped, Lauria said. This is known as the Family Maximum, or FMAX.
“When benefits for a family would otherwise exceed the maximum amount payable, the payments of all members, except the worker, are reduced proportionately to bring the total within the limit,” she said. “At no time may the total benefits paid to the family exceed the FMAX.”
A $2,400 primary insurance amount translates into a family max of $4,200, she said. So before taking any other deductions into account, your wife and son would be eligible for $900 each. In other words, the sum of $2,400, $900 and $900 is $4,200.
But because your wife filed for benefits before she reached her full retirement age of 66, “her $900 benefit would be reduced to $650 at age 63,” Lauria said. “The son’s benefit does not get reduced for age; so it remains at $900.”
DEAR CARRIE: I worked for the federal government and didn’t pay into Social Security. Can I collect spousal benefits when my wife files for benefits next year at age 66? I am already 66. My wife is a teacher’s assistant at a local school, and she pays Social Security taxes. Also, do I qualify for Social Security disability benefits since I am a disabled veteran? — Bigger Benefit?
DEAR BIGGER BENEFIT: You can apply under your wife’s Social Security earnings record, but any amount you qualify for would be subject to the government pension offset because your job didn’t require you to pay Social Security taxes.
“The [offset] provision requires that Social Security spouse’s or widow(er)’s benefits be reduced if the entitled person also receives a pension based on his own work for a federal, state or local government that was not covered by Social Security,” Lauria said.
The offset would reduce your spousal benefit by two-thirds of the amount of your government pension, she said. For example, if you receive a government pension of $1,500 per month, your Social Security spousal benefit would be reduced by $1,000.
“In some instances, the amount to be offset is greater than the amount of the Social Security benefit, thereby resulting in a benefit that is reduced to zero,” she said.
Regarding Social Security disability benefits, she said two things disqualify you from receiving them: The most important is that you wouldn’t have the work credits to qualify because you didn’t pay into Social Security, Lauria said. And you have already reached your full retirement age of 66.
“Social Security disability benefits are for workers who have not yet attained their full retirement age,” she said.
Go to bit.ly/socialLI for more on Social Security’s Family Maximum rule.