MONEY Social Security

The Right Way to Claim Social Security Widow’s Benefits

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. I am 61 and was divorced from my husband two years ago after more than 16 years of marriage. He died a few months ago at 72 and had been receiving Social Security benefits of $1,663 a month. I am working part-time, earning $13,000 a year, and want to continue doing so. According to the Social Security calculator, my own retirement benefit would be $1,028 a month if I claim at age 62, $1,364 at age 66 (my full retirement age), or $1,800 at age 70. If I claim a (reduced) widow’s survivor benefit before age 66, I expect to receive $1,314 a month if I file now at age 61½ or $1,347 at age 62.

Can I apply just for my survivor’s benefits now, continue to work, apply for Medicare at age 65, and at age 70 file for my own benefits? Also, while receiving survivor’s benefits, would I need to apply for my own benefits at age 66 and suspend it until age 70; or can I continue to collect survivor’s benefits, with no need to apply and suspend at 66, and change to my own benefits at 70? — Elizabeth

A. This is an incredibly well-informed query, so, first off, kudos to Elizabeth for doing her homework and doing such a good job looking out for herself. The details she provides are essential for figuring out her best Social Security claiming choice.

The simple answer to her question—whether to claim survivor’s benefits now—is “Yes.” The reasons for this illustrate the complexity of individual retirement benefits, as well as the way benefits interact, which can increase or reduce your Social Security income. This is a key issue for women, who tend to outlive their spouses and file the lion’s share of survivor claims.

The rules for widow’s (or survivor’s) benefits are different from spousal benefits, which involve claims on a current or divorced spouse. Survivor’s benefits may be taken as early as age 60, while spousal benefits normally can’t begin until age 62. Both benefits are lowered if you claim early, but the percentage reductions differ. That’s because survivors can claim up to six years before reaching their full retirement age (FRA), which is 66 for current claimants, compared with just four years for early spousal claims.

Another key difference is that survivor benefits do not trigger deeming when taken prior to full retirement age, which can be a real headache. If you are eligible to file for a spousal benefit and do so before age 66, Social Security will deem you to be also filing for your own retirement benefit. It does not pay two benefits at the same time but will give you an amount roughly equal to the greater of the two benefits. Further, once your retirement benefit has been triggered early, it will be permanently reduced.

The good news is that deeming does not apply to survivor benefits. So Elizabeth can file for a widow’s benefit right away and not trigger a claim for her own retirement benefit. Because it’s likely her retirement benefit will be higher at age 70 than her widow’s benefit, she should plan on taking the widow’s benefit as soon as possible. At age 70, she can switch to her retirement benefit .

She is correct that she will be hit with an early filing reduction. But given the small increases she would receive if she waited, the benefit of deferring is outweighed by the gains of claiming now. That’s because she will get more years of benefits, so the cumulative amount of income will be greater.

The modest earnings she receives won’t be a factor either. “Since her earnings are below the 2014 annual earning limits, she could qualify for widows benefits beginning this month with no loss of benefits due to the earnings test,” says James Nesbitt, a Social Security claims representative for nearly 40 years who now provides benefits counseling for High Falls Advisors in Rochester, NY.

“Depending on her past work history, her continued contributions into the Social Security system by working may have the effect of increasing her monthly benefit amount,” he adds. “The online retirement calculator on Social Security’s website will allow for future earnings to be used in estimating benefits.”

Elizabeth should set up an appointment now at a local Social Security office in order to begin receiving benefits as soon as possible, Nesbitt adds. If she files for her survivor benefit before age 65, Social Security should automatically enroll her in Medicare.

Further, Nesbitt notes, the precise amount of her survivor’s benefit depends on when her late husband filed early for his retirement benefit. This, like much else about Social Security, can be very complicated. But if his $1,663 benefit was the result of an early retirement filing, her actual survivor’s benefit could end up being much higher than she estimates. She should review this possibility when she meets with the agency to file her claim.

Lastly, she should not file and suspend her own retirement benefit but simply collect her survivor’s benefit and then claim her own retirement benefit at age 70. “Once a retirement claim has been filed at 66, albeit suspended, the amount of the widow’s benefit will be calculated as if she is [also] receiving the retirement benefit,” Bennett notes. “A ‘file and suspend’ would reduce or possibly eliminate the widow’s benefit.”

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: The Best Way to Tap Your IRA in Retirement

MONEY Ask the Expert

Home Insurance Policies to Skip

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I just bought an $89-per-year insurance policy for our sewer pipe. My wife says these kinds of policies (of which I have quite a few) are a waste of money. What do you say?

A: Well, if your sewer pipe cracks over the next 12 months, that’s money well spent. With tens of thousands in excavation, repair, and cleanup bills, you’ll be glad you get paid back for whatever portion of the expense the policy covers (perhaps $5,000).

Of course, it’s unlikely that the pipe under your front lawn will crack this year, in which case you won’t collect anything on your policy except perhaps some peace of mind. Now, $89 certainly isn’t a big outlay if it helps you sleep at night, but consider all of the similar insurance plans and extended warranties you can buy for just about every appliance, electronic gadget, and piece of home equipment you ever purchase.

Those can add up to many hundreds of dollars spent annually on policies that, frankly, have dubious value because of likely coverage restrictions in the fine print, because you may not remember exactly what policies you’ve bought or where the paperwork is if something does happen to a covered product, and because if the company providing the policy goes belly-up, your insurance goes with it.

“As a general rule, I’d advise against buying any sort of extended warranty or product insurance policy,” says Linda Sherry, a director at Consumer Action, a national nonprofit advocacy group based in San Francisco. Those plans are huge profit centers for the retailers, which often pay large commissions to the salesmen who pressure you so hard to buy them.

Most products come with a one-year warranty anyway—and that’s often doubled by the credit card you buy it with (check your card policy). So the extended warranty you buy from an appliance retailer, for example, could be duplicative.

Besides, the point of insurance should be to protect you from financially catastrophic expenses like a house fire, car accident, or health emergency. Smaller emergency costs, such as replacing a section of sewer pipe, a water heater, or a big screen TV, are hopefully the sorts of expenses that you could cover by other means, such as shifting funds from your contingency savings.

If you’re still tempted to pay for certain extended warranty coverage, perhaps because it includes an annual maintenance visit (as with oil-furnace coverage) or free tech help (as with some computer plans), just make sure the price of the annual policy is no more than 10% of the purchase price of the covered product, says Sherry. “Anything higher is overpriced.”

MONEY IRAs

The Best Way to Tap Your IRA In Retirement

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 72 years old and subject to mandatory IRA withdrawals. I don’t need all the money for my expenses. What should I do with the leftover money? Jay Kahn, Vienna, VA.

A: You’re in a fortunate position. While there is a real retirement savings crisis for many Americans, there are also people with individual retirement accounts (IRAs) like you who don’t need to tap their nest egg—at least not yet.

Nearly four out of every 10 U.S. households own an IRA, holding more than $5.7 trillion in these accounts, according to a study by the Investment Company Institute. At Vanguard, 20% of investors with an IRA who take a distribution after age 70 ½ put it into another taxable investment account with the company.

The government forces you to start withdrawing your IRA money when you turn 70½ because the IRS wants to collect the income taxes you’ve deferred on the contributions. You must take your first required minimum distribution (RMD) by April of the year after you turn 70½ and by December 31 for subsequent withdrawals.

But there’s no requirement to spend it, and many people like you want to continue to keep growing your money for the future. In that case you have several options, says Tom Mingone, founder and managing partner of Capital Management Group of New York.

First, look at your overall asset allocation and risk tolerance. Add the money to investments where you are underweight, Mingone advises. “You’ll get the most bang for your buck doing that with mutual funds or an exchange traded fund.“

For wealthier investors who are charitably inclined, Mingone recommends doing a direct rollover to a charity. The tax provision would allow you to avoid paying taxes on your RMD by moving it directly from your IRA to a charity. The tax provision expired last year but Congress has extended the rule through 2014 and President Obama is expected to sign it.

You can also gift the money. Putting it into a 529 plan for your grandchildren’s education allows it to grow tax free for many years. Another option is to establish an irrevocable life insurance trust and use the money to pay the premiums. With such a trust, the insurance proceeds won’t be considered part of your estate so your heirs don’t pay taxes on it. “It’s a tax-free, efficient way to leave more to your family,” Mingone says.

Stay away from immediate annuities though. “It’s not that I don’t believe in them, but when you’re already into your 70s, the risk you’ll outlive your capital is diminished,” says Mingone. You’ll be locking in a chunk of money at today’s low interest rates and there’s a shorter period of time to collect. “It’s not a good tradeoff for guaranteed income,” says Mingone.

Beyond investing the extra cash, consider just spending it. Some retirees are reluctant to spend the money they’ve saved for retirement out of fear of running out later on. With retirements that can last 30 years or more, it’s a legitimate worry. “Believe it or not, some people have a hard time spending it down,” says Mingone. But failure to enjoy your hard-earned savings, especially while you are still young enough and in good health to use it, can be a sad outcome too.

If you’ve met all your other financial goals, have some fun. “There’s something to be said for knocking things off the bucket list and enjoying spending your money,” says Mingone.

Update: This story was changed to reflect the Senate passing a bill to extend the IRS rule allowing the direct rollover of an IRA’s required minimum distribution to a charity through 2014.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com

Read next: How Your Earnings Record Affects Your Social Security

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Pick a Medigap Policy That’s Right for You

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: “I’m looking into Medigap insurance policies with very limited success. The information is very scarce. It is difficult to choose an insurance company. What criteria should I use to decide among carriers?” — Ray, Henderson, Nev.

A: Medigap, an insurance policy that supplements Medicare, helps pay for some of the medical costs that Medicare doesn’t cover, such as your co-payments, co-insurance, and deductible. Some policies even help with services Medicare doesn’t touch, like medical care outside the U.S.

You can choose from 10 standard Medigap policies, each named for a letter in the alphabet. The government mandates what features the 10 plans must offer, but the policies are sold through private insurers. (If you live in Massachusetts, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, the standard benefits on the Medigap policies sold in your state differ.)

Medigap Plan A is the most basic policy, while Plan F offers the most extensive coverage, picking up almost all of your out-of-pocket expenses. Plan F is also the most popular, accounting for 55% of plans sold, according to America’s Health Insurance Plans, the health insurance industry trade group.

The fastest growing Medigap policy, Plan N, is a newer option that has cost-sharing requirements but is typically less expensive than Plan F.

To shop for a Medigap plan, start with the Medigap policy search tool at the Medicare website. Enter your zip code, and you’ll see the standardized plans available to you, details about what they cover, the estimated costs, and a list of insurers selling those plans in your area. For price quotes, you’ll have to call each company directly.

Usually the only difference between same-letter policies is cost—and the price range can be shockingly large. According to a survey of rates by Weiss Ratings, the annual premium on a Medigap Plan F ranged from $162 to $5,674.

“I recommend that people get Plan F if they can afford it because it offers the most coverage,” says Fred Riccardi, client services director for the Medicare Rights Center. If you can’t swing a Plan F, pick the option that offers the most coverage within your budget.

Once you settle on a letter, you can shop on price alone. “Since the policy itself is standardized, premiums are really the only thing that will vary across insurance companies,” says Riccardi. “The only reason I see people go with a more expensive policy is if they prefer a certain insurance company.”

However, you do need to pay attention to the insurer’s pricing system too. Some plans are “issue age,” meaning the premiums rise with medical inflation. Others are “attained age” policies, with the price increasing each year with your age as well as medical inflation. You’ll also see “community rate” policies, which charge every policyholder the same premium regardless of age.

Attained age policies may appear to be the cheapest initially, but in the long run they could cost you more. “People should be aware that if they buy an attained age rated policy, their premiums will increase as they get older,” says Riccardi. “They may be better off considering a community rated or issue age rated policy if these options are available in their state.”

To get the lowest price and ensure that you won’t be denied, apply for a policy during the six-month open enrollment period that begins the month you turn 65, says Riccardi. Under federal law, insurers cannot deny you coverage during that window, and they must offer you the best available rates regardless of your health.

If you’re shopping for a Medigap plan outside of this window, you can be turned down or charged more for a pre-existing condition, unless you live in a state that offers extra consumer protections.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Negotiate the Best Price From a Home-Improvement Contractor

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Can I negotiate the cost of a home improvement project? I feel like these guys all really want my business, but I don’t want to anger anyone by suggesting they lower their bids.

A: Yes, you can negotiate with a contractor; the trick is doing it without making it feel like a negotiation. Anytime you’re haggling over someone’s work (versus a mass-produced product like a car or flat-screen television), look for a way to ask for a lower price without any suggestion of insult. The last thing you want is an angry contractor looking for ways to cut corners on your project to make it come in at what he thinks is an unjustly low price.

Here are three effective techniques you can use:

1. Announce that you’re getting multiple bids. One of the major advantages to getting three or more bids for any significant (say, more than $5,000) home project is that you can tell the prospective contractors, honestly, that you’re doing so. That gets the message across that a) you’re concerned about the price, b) he’s competing with other contractors for your job, and c) he’d better sharpen his pencil and give you the best possible number he can. This is not to say that you should hire the contractor with the lowest bid. Hire the one whose work and reputation are the best. But the process of competing for your business will almost certainly drive down everyone’s price.

2. Ask him to “value engineer” the plans. Rather than flat-out asking your contractor if he will lower his price to win your business, which could backfire, ask for his advice on how you can rein in the cost of your plans. If his bid is $30,000 and you’re trying to keep the project to $25,000, for example, tell him so, and ask him if he can recommend any changes that could bring the cost in line. Maybe he will suggest a similar-looking-yet-more-affordable tile for your new master bathroom or a different layout that keeps the fixtures where they are and therefore slashes the plumbing costs. An open conversation about where to scale back doesn’t run the risk of making him mad—in fact, it shows that you value his opinion. And it further drives home the message that your budget is tight, possibly leading him to make other money-saving suggestions elsewhere.

3. See if you can contribute some sweat equity. If you’re handy and have the time, you might be able to knock off a portion of the project yourself. In that case you can ask the contractor to reduce his price accordingly. If you have a good hand for painting, for example, that’s a perfect project to tackle yourself. You could also do some basic demolition (assuming you have the know-how and gear to do it safely), excavation work (for small projects that don’t require power earth-moving equipment), or landscaping around the finished job. Any of these could easily slash hundreds or thousands of dollars off the project price.

 

MONEY Social Security

The Hidden Pitfalls of Collecting Social Security Benefits from Your Ex

Q. I have spoken with seven people at the Social Security Administration and gotten five different answers to my question. I want to draw Social Security from my ex-husband of 30 years at my present age, 62. I know that is not my full retirement age, and I would receive a reduced benefit. I also want to wait until full retirement age, 66, to draw from my Social Security benefit and receive it in full without reduction. Can I do this? —Sandra

A. This sounds like a sensible plan but unfortunately, when it comes to Social Security rules, logic doesn’t always carry the day. In this case, your plan conflicts with the agency’s so-called “deeming” rules, which apply to people who apply for spousal benefits—whether they are married or divorced—before they reach full retirement age.

Before we get to the problems with deeming, let’s quickly review the basics. If you were 66 and filed a divorce spousal claim, you would collect the highest possible spousal benefit—50% of the amount your ex-husband is entitled to at his full retirement age. It isn’t necessary for your ex to have filed for his own benefits at 66 for you to receive half of this amount. In fact, he doesn’t even need to have reached age 66. That’s just the reference point for determining spousal benefits.

Since you’re filing early, however, you won’t get half of his benefits. The percentages can be confusing, so here’s an example from the agency’s explanation of benefit reductions for early retirement. If your ex-husband’s benefit at full retirement age was $1,000 a month, your “full” divorce spousal payout at age 66 would be 50%, or $500. If you file at age 62, that amount will be reduced by 30% of $500, or $150. The payout you get, therefore, comes to $350 ($500 minus $150), or 35% of his benefit.

There are a few other rules for receiving divorce spousal benefits. You cannot be married to someone else. And if your former husband has not yet filed for his own Social Security retirement benefit, you must be divorced for at least two years to claim an ex-spousal benefit.

Now for the deeming pitfalls. If you meet these tests and file for a divorce spousal benefit before reaching full retirement age, Social Security deems you to be simultaneously filing for a reduced retirement benefit based on your own earnings record. The agency will look at the amount of each award and will pay you an amount that is equal to the greater of the two.

Since your spousal filing has also triggered a claim based on your own work history, you cannot then wait until full retirement age to file for your own benefits. In other words, your own retirement benefit will be reduced for the rest of your life. Logical or not, those are the rules.

There’s no simple solution to the deeming problem, but you do have some choices. Figuring out the best option depends on many factors, including the levels of Social Security benefits that you and your ex-husband can receive, as well as your overall financial situation. Do you absolutely need to begin collecting some Social Security benefits at age 62, or can you afford to wait? You should also consider whether you’re in good health and how long you think you may live.

Your first choice is to do nothing until you turn 66, which is the full retirement age for someone who is now 62. Once you hit that milestone, deeming no longer applies. At that time, you could collect your unreduced divorce spousal benefit and suspend your own benefit for up to four years till age 70. Thanks to delayed retirement credits, your benefit will rise by 8% a year, plus the rate of inflation, each year between age 66 and 70. (Your spousal benefit remains the same, except for the inflation increase.) So, even if your divorce spousal benefit is greater than your retirement benefit at age 66, this may no longer be the case when you turn 70.

But if you need the money now, your best choice may be to file for reduced benefits. If your reduced divorce spousal benefit is higher than your own reduced retirement benefit, you have another option. At 66, you could suspend your own benefit and receive only your excess divorce spousal benefit—the amount by which your ex-spousal benefit exceeds your retirement benefit. It probably won’t be much. Still, suspending your benefit will allow it to rise until age 70, though it will be lower than you would have otherwise received because of early claiming. If these increases provide more income than your divorce spousal benefit, this move may be worth considering.

Variation of these choices include filing early at age 63, 64, or 65. You can also consider how delayed retirement credits would affect your decision if you filed at age 67, 68, or 69. In the end, you’ll need to do the math to compare the potential benefits of delaying vs. claiming now. Or you may want to get help from a financial adviser.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: This New Retirement Income Solution May Be Headed for Your 401(k)

MONEY Ask the Expert

When a Reverse Mortgage Does—and Doesn’t—Make Sense

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My wife and I have no heirs. Our home is worth about $700,000 and nearly paid off. We’re thinking of taking a reverse mortgage at retirement. How does this work, how much could we get, and is it even a good idea? —Larry, Chesapeake Beach, Md.

A: A reverse mortgage is exactly what it sounds like: You are borrowing against the equity in your home, but instead of paying the bank every month, the bank pays you.

Like any home equity loan, a reverse mortgage allows you draw equity out of your house while continuing to live there. Its big advantage over other home equity borrowing is that you don’t have to pay back a dime while you live in the house, but once you sell or are no longer able to occupy the home as your primary residence, the total loan balance, plus interest and fees, must be paid in full.

You can receive the loan as a lump sum, a monthly amount, or a line of credit (essentially, a checkbook you use to spend the funds as needed), or some combination of these. If you still owe money on your mortgage, the new loan can be used to pay off the remaining balance.

The amount you can borrow depends on a variety of factors, including current interest rates, an appraisal of your home, your age (you must be at least 62 to qualify for a reverse mortgage), and your credit rating. The maximum amount allowed by the federal government is $625,000 for 2014. Reverse mortgage interest rates are fairly low, currently around 2% for a variable rate and around 5% for a fixed rate.

As good as that all sounds, there are serious pitfalls to reverse mortgages, says Sandy Jolley, a reverse mortgage suitability and abuse consultant in Los Angeles. The big one is that you’re spending down what’s likely your largest asset. Even though you don’t have heirs to leave the house to, you might need it later to help pay for assisted living or extended home health care. And you cannot take out another home equity loan once you have a reverse mortgage.

Also, reverse mortgage fees can clock in at a whopping 4%—not just of what you borrow but of your maximum loan amount. So in your case, you could be charged $25,000 (4% of $625,000) even if you opened up a reverse mortgage line of credit as an emergency reserve and never drew out any funds. “The fees are rolled into the loan and charged monthly compounded interest until the home is sold or taken by the lender to repay the debt,” Jolley says.

Another major concern with a reverse mortgage is that the lender can call the loan—meaning you have to pay the balance immediately, even if you have to sell your home to do so—should you ever let your homeowners insurance policy expire, get into arrears on your property taxes, fall behind on home maintenance, or move into an assisted living facility for a full year.

Because of these high costs and risks, Jolley suggests using a reverse mortgage only as a last resort. Consult a trusted family member or a financial planner who’s not in the business of selling reverse mortgages about whether you really will need that money in order to live comfortably in retirement. The combination of Social Security and your retirement savings (and the lack of a mortgage payment; congrats on that!) may provide the income you need to live the way you want to live. Save your equity until you really need it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that at the end of the loan the bank owns the property. The owner retains title to the home.

Read more about reverse mortgages:
When Tapping Your Home Pays
Should You Get a Reverse Mortgage?
The Surprising Threat to Your Financial Security in Retirement

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Tools to Give a New Homeowner

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Getty

Q: My grandson just bought his first home. He’s excited about putting in some sweat equity, but he has no tools because he’s always lived in an apartment. I’d like to surprise him with a good starter set. What should I get?

A: Not only will this thoughtful gift save your grandson the considerable cost of establishing a collection of DIY paraphernalia, it will also save him countless trips to the home center. Chances are, he would go out to buy the tools he needs piecemeal, meaning a trip (or two!) every time he tackles a new project.

Here are a few different types of starter kits you could get him:

Loaded tool bag: A tool bag is like an inside-out toolbox; all of the gear is exposed, stowed in dedicated pouches and pockets and easy to see and grab. You could buy a bag and load it up with tools yourself—or just purchase the Craftsman Evolv ($40 at Sears). It contains all the basics: screwdrivers, measuring tape, hammer, pliers, utility knife, and a plastic sorting tray for the nails, hooks, and screws he collects over the course of his projects. This is far from every hand tool he’ll ever need, but there’s room to add more as he builds his collection.

Cordless power tool set: Since he doesn’t already own any tools, we’re assuming he’s not expert enough to need a whole array of heavy-duty power tools. More affordable and handy would be a set of battery-operated power tools. Today’s lithium-ion batteries deliver plenty of muscle, hold their charge between uses, and use rechargeable batteries that are interchangeable for a host of same-brand tools. Porter-Cable offers a four-tool kit (circular and reciprocating saws, drill/driver, and flashlight, with two 20-volt battery packs, so one can be recharging while your grandson is using the other) for about $200 at amazon.com.

Extras: He’ll be able to tackle most any job around the house if you round out his collection with a large ratchet set (such as the Husky 65-piece mechanics toolset, $30 at Home Depot) for removing and installing bolts of any size; an electronic stud finder (like the Bosch Digital Multi-Scanner, $80 at Lowes) to make easy work of locating framing from which to hang shelves and cabinets soundly; and a small bubble level (like the magnetic aluminum torpedo level, $15 at Ace) to make sure those shelves and pictures are hung straight.

 

MONEY Social Security

Why Social Security Suddenly Changed Its Benefits Withdrawal Rule

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I retired in 2009 to care for an ailing parent who has since passed away. I took Social Security at age 62, when the law allowed claimants to pay back their Social Security and receive the highest benefits at age 70. Since that time the law has changed and repayment can only be made in the first year. Do you know of any proposal to change the current rules for those who signed up under the old law? —Sandra

A: As Sandra correctly notes, Social Security changed its benefits withdrawal policy in December 2010, after she had retired under its prior rules—and it’s one of the most unusual policy shifts that the agency has enacted. Consider that Social Security, which often gets dinged for slow response time, made this change lightning fast. What’s more, the new policy seems to have little to do with the needs of beneficiaries like Sandra and everything to do with the agency being surprised—and perhaps chagrined—that people were paying attention to its often arcane rules and actually taking advantage of them.

Under the old policy, people who had begun receiving benefits could, at any time, pay back everything they’d received and effectively wipe clean their benefit history. By resetting their benefit record this way, people who took reduced retirement benefits early would be able to file later for much higher monthly payments. For people born between 1943 and 1954, for example, retirement benefits at age 70 are 76% higher than those taken at age 62.

Few people paid much attention to this rule until a growing group of financial planners and Social Security experts began highlighting the possible gains of withdrawing benefits and delaying claiming. As the word spread, journalists began to write about these rules for an even wider audience.

Social Security, which previously had no problem with the rule when few were using it, changed its mind as more and more people began withdrawing their benefits. Suddenly, without an extended period for evaluation or debate, the agency issued a final rule limiting the benefit withdrawal option—and it took effect immediately. If the public wanted to comment, it would be able to do so only after the rule was changed. By comparison, the decision to raise the official retirement age in the program from 66 to 67 was enacted in 1983—37 years before it will take effect in the year 2020.

Here’s what the agency said at the time it changed its rules on withdrawing benefits:

“The agency is changing its withdrawal policy because recent media articles have promoted the use of the current policy as a means for retired beneficiaries to acquire an ‘interest-free loan.’ However, this ‘free loan’ costs the Social Security Trust Fund the use of money during the period the beneficiary is receiving benefits with the intent of later withdrawing the application and the interest earned on these funds. The processing of these withdrawal applications is also a poor use of the agency’s limited administrative resources in a time of fiscal austerity—resources that could be better used to serve the millions of Americans who need Social Security’s services.”

Further, in making the shift to a one-year withdrawal period, the agency explained that the policy was designed to reduce the value of the option so few people would use it. Today, by the way, the agency supports delaying retirement much more than it used to.

Of course, telling people to delay claiming is of little help to people like Sandra, who retired under the old rule and was caught by the sudden policy shift. Is there any likelihood that the rule could be changed to accommodate this group? Not really, says James Nesbitt, a Social Security claims representative for nearly 40 years who is now providing benefits expertise for High Falls Advisors in Rochester, NY. “Unfortunately,” he says, “this change did not contain any grandfathering provision. I am not aware of any pending actions within Congress or Social Security that would extend grandfather rights to those who were disadvantaged by this change.”

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

More on Social Security:

How to protect your retirement income from Social Security mistakes

Here’s how Social Security will cut your benefits if you retire early

Will Social Security be enough to retire on?

Read next: Can I Collect Social Security From My Ex?

MONEY Ask the Expert

Do You Really Need Medigap Insurance If You’re in Good Health?

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: We are in good health and have a Medigap Plan N for 2014. With same expected health in 2015, do we need anything more than Medicare A, B, and D plans? —Norbert & Sue

A: Medigap, a private insurance policy that supplements Medicare, picks up where Medicare leaves off, helping you cover co-payments, coinsurance, and deductibles. Some policies also pay for services Medicare doesn’t touch, like medical care outside the U.S.

This additional insurance is not necessary, but, says Fred Riccardi, client services director at the Medicare Rights Center, “if you can afford to, have a Medigap policy. It provides protection for high out-of-pocket costs, especially if you become ill or need to receive more care as you age.” (If you already have some supplemental retiree health insurance through a former employer or union, you may be able to skip Medigap; you also don’t need a Medigap policy if you chose a Medicare Advantage Plan, or Medicare Part C.)

If you purchase Medigap, you’ll owe a monthly premium on top of what you pay for Medicare Part B. The cost ranges from a median annual premium of $936 for Medigap Plan K coverage to $1,952 for Plan F coverage, according to a survey of insurers by Weiss Ratings. The median cost for your plan N was $1,332 a year.

Even if you didn’t end up needing your Medicap policy this year, however, think twice before you drop it.

If you skip signing up when you’re first eligible, or if you buy a Medigap plan and later drop it, you might not be able to get another policy down the road, or you may have to pay far more for the coverage.

Under federal law, you’re guaranteed the right to buy a Medigap policy during a six-month open enrollment period that begins the month you turn 65 and join Medicare, says Riccardi. (To avoid a gap in coverage, you can apply earlier.) During this time, insurance companies cannot deny you coverage, and they must offer you the best available rates regardless of your health. You can compare the types of Medigap plans at Medicare.gov.

You also have a guaranteed right to buy most Medigap policies within 63 days of losing certain types of health coverage, including private group health insurance and a Medigap policy or Medicare Advantage plan that ends its coverage. You also have this fresh window if you joined a Medicare Advantage plan when you first became eligible for Medicare and dropped out within the first 12 months.

Most states follow the federal rules, but some, such as New York and Connecticut, allow you to buy a policy any time, says Riccardi. Call your State Health Insurance Assistance Program to learn more.

Outside of one of these federally or state-protected windows, you’ll be able to buy a policy only if you find a company willing to sell you one.And they can charge you a higher premium based on your health status, and you may have to wait six months before the policy will cover pre-existing conditions.

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