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Taking Care of Mom and Dad: Social Security Q & A

The following are questions common to Social Security and the benefits provided by the program. Program benefits are under constant change, specifically with regard to earnings values. For this reason, it's key to stay tuned in to recent figures.

Retirement

Q: Are benefits based on my parents' last five years of earnings?

A: No. Retirement benefit calculations are based on average earnings during a lifetime of work under the Social Security system. For most current and future retirees, Social Security will average their 35 highest years of earnings. Years with low or no earnings may be counted to bring the total years of earnings up to 35.

Q: If my dad stops work at age 52, can he expect to get the same predicted benefit amount shown on the annual statement at age 62?

A: Probably not. When Social Security averages the 35 highest years of earnings to estimate benefits on a statement, it assumes that your dad worked up until age 62. If, instead, he has $0 earnings during those last 10 years, the average earnings are probably less and so are the benefits.

It's understandable that people relying on Social Security spend a lot of time focusing on how their benefits are calculated. The more important point to keep in mind is that, even at their largest, these benefits aren't enough to support a middle-class lifestyle. Your parents will need to have some additional resources to maintain that sort of life.

Q: Do my parents' pensions -- provided by their former employers -- reduce the amount of Social Security benefits they get?

A: If the pension is from a job where your parent also paid Social Security taxes, it will not affect his or her Social Security benefit. However, pensions based on work not covered by Social Security (the federal civil service and some state, local or foreign government systems, etc.) will reduce the amount of a Social Security benefit.

Q: My parents both worked under Social Security. My mom's Social Security statement says she can get $850 a month at full retirement age and my dad's says he would get $1,450. Do they each get those respective amounts?

A: Since your mom's own benefit is more than half of your dad's amount, they will each get their own benefit. If your mom's own benefit were less than half of your dad's (that is, less than $725), she would receive her amount plus enough from your father's record to bring it up to half of his total amount.

Q: If my mom works after receiving Social Security retirement benefits, will she have to pay Social Security taxes on those earnings?

A: Yes. Anyone who works in a job covered by Social Security must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on their earnings, even if they are already receiving their Social Security benefits (and being covered by Medicare). The same is true if your mom is self-employed.

Disability

Q: How recently would my parents have had to be working to get Social Security disability benefits?

A: Some older people don't realize they need a relatively recent work history to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. Your parents need 20 credits (five years) of work in the 10 years before their disability started. Credits are assigned to calendar years based on the amount of their earnings for that year.

Q: If a disability must be expected to last at least a year in order to qualify under Social Security coverage, do my parents have to wait a whole year before they get benefits?

A: No. A disabled parent should apply for the benefits as soon as possible. If they are approved, payments begin after a five-month waiting period that starts with the month in which the disability began.

Q: Is there a time limit on how long my parents can receive disability benefits?

A: No. Benefits continue as long as the medical condition keeps them from working. If your parent is still disabled when he or she reaches full retirement age, the disability benefit is automatically converted to a retirement benefit of the same amount.

Q: If my mother is eligible for Social Security disability benefits, is she also eligible for Medicare benefits?

A: If she's getting disability benefits, she's eligible for Medicare 24 months after the date Social Security decided her disability began.

Q: Where can I get a list of the impairments that Social Security considers to be disabling?

A: Disability Evaluation Under Social Security (SSA Pub. No. 64-039) contains the medical criteria that Social Security uses to determine disability. It's intended primarily for physicians and other health professionals; but anyone can download a copy from the Social Security Administration Web site (www.ssa.gov).

Survivor Benefits

Q: My father died recently at age 65. Can my mother collect his Social Security benefits? She just turned 58.

A: Unless your mother is disabled, she would not be eligible for monthly survivors benefits based on your father's earnings record until she reaches age 60. At that age, her benefit would be 71½ percent of his basic benefit amount. If she waits until she reaches her full retirement age, she will receive 100 percent of his amount. (Disabled widows or widowers can receive benefits as early as age 50.)

Q: How can I determine whether my mother is listed on my father's Social Security record as his beneficiary?

A: Social Security records do not have named beneficiaries. The Social Security Act specifies which family members can receive benefits on any one record. Social Security will not pay benefits to people who don't meet the legal requirements, nor can the program refuse to pay benefits to people who do meet those requirements.

Q: Is it true that when my dad dies, my mom gets only a lump-sum death payment of $255?

A: While it's true that the only cash payment Social Security makes upon the death of spouse is a check for $255, the program provides survivor benefits that last as long as the survivor lives -- and increase each year with increases in the cost of living. Your parents will each receive an annual Social Security Statement, giving estimates of their potential survivor benefits.

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