(Matt Rourke/AP Photo)
Columnist

For so many, Social Security is the safety net they just cannot live without.

But knowing when to collect your benefits and understanding the system’s complex rules can be very vexing.

In a poll earlier this year conducted for MassMutual, nearly half of respondents ages 50 and over failed a short true/false quiz on Social Security retirement benefits.

During a recent online discussion, I invited Andy Landis, author of the book “Social Security: The Inside Story,” to join me in answering reader questions. Landis, who spent 12 years working for the agency, put his insider knowledge to work after he left by helping individuals and professionals understand the convoluted program. Here are some of his answers to readers:

Q: Is the surviving spouse entitled to all or a portion of the deceased spouse’s Social Security? Both spouses worked to their full retirement age.

A widow or widower can get up to 100 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit if claiming the benefit at full retirement age. A survivor who is dually eligible for his or her own Social Security plus a survivor payment can choose the higher of the two, or even take one early and the other later, with no carry-over of the reduction for early filing.

Q: Could you explain the process of how Congress borrows from the Social Security Trust Fund?

Nothing mysterious about it, but a lot of hype is generated. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has always been required to invest its excess funds in only one type of investment — U.S. Treasury bonds. The invested amount really is similar to any purchase of U.S. Savings Bonds. Treasury pays back the loan with interest, credited every quarter.

Q: Isn’t there an argument for taking Social Security early because it is less likely legislators would cut benefits to people actually receiving them versus people who are not yet collecting?

We can’t predict what Congress might do, so there’s no definite answer. However, I’ve observed that changes to Social Security, actual and proposed, tend to fall on younger workers, not near-retirees, typically based on birth date rather than whether you’re already collecting. In addition, political talk is easy, but passing bills isn’t, especially to cut Social Security. So there are many factors in deciding when to take Social Security, but I think fear of political action is a smaller factor.

Q: I was an independent contractor for a few years more than 20 years ago and (stupidly) did not pay my estimated quarterly taxes or any Social Security. I have since repaid the tax debt and am clear with the IRS (thank goodness) but never paid anything into Social Security for those years. You can easily see the missed years on my work history on the “my Social Security” website. Do I need to do anything now?

You have what SSA calls an “earnings discrepancy.” If you settled up with the IRS, you might have paid your Social Security taxes as part of that, and it’s just a matter of updating SSA’s records. If not, you’ll have to pay your Social Security taxes also. Either way, you can call 800-SSA-1213 to start the correction process.

Q: I just started getting spousal benefits. I am 66 and will work for one more year. Does getting spousal benefits reduce my own benefit when I apply at 70?

As long as you were born before Jan. 2, 1954 (check!), and your spouse is getting Social Security (check!), and you first file at 66 (check!), you can draw spousal payments now and delay your own payment, which will continue to grow until 70.

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