I never thought you'd ask

BY TOM MARGENAU Published: June 4, 2012
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I've been either working for the Social Security Administration or writing a column about Social Security issues for about 40 years now. And I would have bet money that in all that time, I've been asked every question in the book.

In fact, I don't recall getting a question in the past 15 years or so that I haven't been asked a dozen, if not hundreds, of times before. And now this week, I've had two questions emailed to me that I've never been asked in my entire career!

Will wonders never cease? The first deals with the relationship between disability and retirement benefits.

Before I answer the question, let me give some background information. If you are getting Social Security disability benefits, and if you are still getting those benefits as you start to push normal retirement age, then at age 66 you are automatically switched to the retirement program.

The changeover is generally transparent to you because the benefit amount remains the same. Or, to put that another way, a Social Security disability benefit pays the same rate as your full age 66 retirement benefit.

So when you reach age 66, nothing really changes — moneywise. But on Social Security's books, you are switched from the disability ledgers to the retirement ledgers.

That means from age 66 on, your benefits are paid from the retirement trust fund and not the disability trust fund.

So now, here is the first question I was asked that I've never been asked before.

Q. I am 65 years old and have been getting Social Security disability benefits for about five years now. I've been told that I will be switched to the Social Security retirement program at age 66.

But can I delay that switchover until age 70 and then get the 32 percent "delayed retirement bonus" you have written about in past columns?

A. If you are asking — "Can I continue receiving disability benefits until age 70 and then switch to retirement benefits with a 32 percent bonus?" — the answer is: no.

But if you are asking — "Can I stop my disability benefits at age 66 and delay the switchover to retirement benefits until age 70?" — the answer is: I guess you can.

I can't think of any rule that would prevent you from doing this. However, I am going to suggest that you think things through first.

I've written columns lately about folks who are "gaming the system," playing around with their Social Security benefits trying to get the maximum return on their "investment." Most of these retirees are delaying taking benefits as long as possible.

They will generally win that Social Security game if they live until their mid to late 80s. Personally, I would never do it. I'd rather spend a little bit smaller Social Security check while I'm still young enough to enjoy it — as opposed to spending a bigger check once I'm in the old folks home!

And you are playing against even bigger odds.

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