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Can You Increase Your Social Security Benefits?

The desire to get the largest possible benefits from Social Security is a relatively new phenomenon. For decades, people received their monthly benefit check and that was it. However, in the late 1990s, a new law let seniors over age 66 work without any reduction in benefits, says the article “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security” from Tuscon.com. The law led to loopholes that became known as “file and suspend” and “file and restrict.” In a nutshell, they allowed retirees to collect dependent spousal benefits on a spouse’s Social Security record, while delaying their own benefits until age 70.

Congress eventually realized that these loopholes violated the basic concept of the program. Benefits to spouses were always known as “dependent” benefits. To claim benefits as a spouse, you had to prove that you were financially dependent upon the other spouse to collect benefits on their record. However, the loophole let people who were the primary wage earner in the family claim benefits as a “dependent” of the other spouse. Five years ago, Congress closed that loophole.

More specifically, Congress closed the ability to file-and-suspend. It also put file-and-restrict on notice. If you turned 66 before January 2020, you could still wiggle through that loophole, and there are some people who are still eligible. That’s where the term “maximizing your benefits” originated.

Can you get a bigger Social Security check, if you don’t fit into the exception noted above? The only real strategy to maximizing your benefits is simply to wait. The equation is pretty simple. If you wait until your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you will receive 100% of your benefit rate. If you can wait until age 70, you’ll receive 132% of your benefit.

In some households, the higher income earner waits until age 70 to file for retirement, so that the surviving spouse will one day receive higher surviving spouse benefits.

But that’s not the best advice for everyone. If you or your spouse suffer from a chronic illness, it may not make sense to wait.

If you or your spouse have lost your jobs, as so many have because of the pandemic, then Social Security may be the safety net that you need, until you are able to return to some kind of paid employment.

There may be other reasons why you might need to take your benefits earlier, even earlier than your FRA. Some households start taking their Social Security benefits at age 62, as a way to augment other income.

If you don’t already have a “My Social Security” account set up on the Social Security Administration’s portal, now is the time to do so. The Social Security Administration stopped sending annual statements years ago, but you can go into your account and download the statements yourself and start planning for your future.

Reference: Tuscon.com (Feb. 10, 2021) “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security”

social security scam

A Four-Decades Long Social Security Scam Finally Ends

In one of the largest fraud cases of its kind, a 76-year-old small business owner in Oregon has been collecting his deceased aunt’s Social Security checks and even her stimulus payment from the Treasury Department issued in May, as reported by AARP in the article “Nephew Allegedly Cashed Dead Aunt’s Social Security Checks for More Than 40 Years.” The nephew, George William Doumar, also collected his own Social Security benefits, telling authorities, “it was nice to have the extra money coming in every month.”

Both Doumar and his aunt, who is not named, lived in Brooklyn. She never married and had no children. Before she died, back in 1971, she named her nephew her sole beneficiary of her life insurance policy. Until July 14, he was getting both his and his aunt’s monthly checks. When interviewed at his home by federal agents, he slumped and said, “that’s a long story … what happened was, well, she’s passed and yes, I’ve been collecting her Social Security.”

Here is what has emerged in this bizarre story:

At age 65, the aunt applied for Social Security, but her wages in 1970 made her ineligible to receive benefits. By August 1977, the Social Security Administration initiated retirement benefits, using her initial benefit application. The first retirement check went out to her in September 1977—after she’d been dead for more than six years.

She had lived in a nursing facility in Brooklyn from about 1969 until her death in 1971. Doumar also lived in Brooklyn and says he doesn’t recall how he obtained regular possession of the checks. He also said that at one point, he reported her death to the SSA, but there are no records of her death being reported.

At first, he cashed her checks at a New York business he owned, but he moved to Oregon in 1989. He forged her signature to add her name to a joint checking account he had with his wife in Oregon. The Social Security checks were mailed to the business he owned.

In February, when government staffers deemed that the aunt would have been 114 years old, they became suspicious. No updates had been made to her account in more than 30 years, except for the address change.

Doumar is facing felony charges, and authorities plan to seek restitution for the amount he stole: $460,192.30. Minus the stimulus check, that’s about $912.50 a month, for nearly 42 years.

It might have been nice to have the extra money, but not to be facing the possibility of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine, in addition to paying back the money owed to the Social Security Administration.

Reference: AARP (Aug. 14, 2020) “Nephew Allegedly Cashed Dead Aunt’s Social Security Checks for More Than 40 Years.”

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