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Setting Social Security Straight

Sometimes the people whose job it is to know the rules don't know them all.

In recent articles, we’ve described little-known strategies that can boost your Social Security income if you’re married or divorced. Unfortunately, many of the readers who want to use those strategies have encountered a problem: Some Social Security Administration representatives flatly deny the existence of the options we wrote about.

Not surprisingly, frustrated readers are asking for help. “After reading your article, I called my local SS office and was treated rudely for even asking about such an option,” writes Tom Swain, a retired Army brigadier general in Tennessee. “I next called the national number. This time I talked to a very nice person. She also denied that such an option existed. Would you be able to cite some specific SS documents that I could refer them to?”

Indeed, we can. Here’s a recap of the rarely used strategies we wrote about, with links to the Social Security rules that allow them.

First, a caveat: You must be at your full retirement age—currently 66, and gradually rising to 67—to use these strategies. The main reason they’re seldom used is that about half of retirees claim Social Security benefits at 62, the earliest age possible. But because of the financial market meltdown, many people can no longer afford to retire as early as they had hoped.

And a piece of advice: If you decide to claim benefits based on the rules we’ve highlighted below, don’t phone in your application. Instead, make an appointment at your local Social Security office. “A face-to-face meeting is probably better for this, and it may cut your waiting time, too,” says Dan Moraski, an agency spokesman. Readers who called the agency’s toll-free number to inquire about these options sometimes have had to spend a long time on hold.

Before your meeting, visit Social Security’s page on applying for benefits on someone else’s work record. You’ll find links there to most of the rules you need, says Moraski. “Print them out, and take them with you,” he advises.

A strategy recap

You’ll find it easier to communicate with the Social Security representative if you’re familiar with the basic rules he or she deals with all the time, as well as with those that aren’t often used. Here’s what you need to know:

Basic: If you’re married, you can choose to claim a benefit based either on your spouse’s work record (about 50 percent of what your spouse is entitled to) or a benefit based on your own record, whichever is higher.

Basic: If you are divorced, were married at least 10 years and haven’t remarried, you’re entitled to a benefit based on your ex’s work record or a benefit based on your own record.

Basic: When you apply for benefits before reaching your full retirement age, you must file for your own benefit and your spousal benefit, if you are eligible for both. You will receive the larger of the two amounts.

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