Dear Rusty: I will be 64 years old in 2019, and thinking about Social Security. My full retirement age is 66 and 2 months, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to get the most out of my retirement. I have a lot of questions, but just need to know the right direction to go. I’ve been told by family members that I have to sign up for Medicare by the age of 65, even though I can’t get full benefits from Social Security until I am 66 and 2 months. I don’t understand exactly how that works. Do I have to pay out of pocket for Medicare until my Social Security starts? Can my wife get benefits from me? Thanks in advance. — Confused
Dear Confused: Medicare and Social Security are two independent benefit programs, even though you enroll in Medicare through Social Security. You do not need to enroll in both at the same time. You can wait until you reach your full retirement age, or up to age 70, to take your Social Security benefits, but age 65 is when you should enroll in Medicare for your healthcare coverage. You have a seven-month window to do that, starting three months before the month you turn 65 and ending three months after the month you turn 65.
If you have other “creditable” healthcare coverage from your or your spouse’s employer, you can decline enrolling in Medicare Part B (coverage for doctors and other outpatient services) and thus avoid the Part B premium. Medicare Part A is free because you are also eligible for Social Security (but you don’t need to claim Social Security to get Medicare Part A).
If you do not have other creditable healthcare coverage, you should enroll in both Medicare Part A and B at age 65 and, at that time, make arrangements with Medicare to pay the premium directly (2019 base premium is $135.50/month), which can be done three different ways: You can set up an automatic payment from your bank; you can complete a form requesting Medicare to automatically debit your bank account on the 20th of each month; or you can be billed directly and pay by check, money order or credit card in three-month increments using coupons they will provide. By enrolling in Medicare at age 65 you avoid any potential late enrollment penalty if you enroll later.
You can enroll in Medicare either online at www.ssa.gov, or by contacting your local Social Security office directly (find it at www.ssa.gov/locator). Then later, after you claim your Social Security benefits, Social Security will automatically deduct your Medicare Part B premium directly from your Social Security payment. At age 65, you should also seek creditable prescription drug coverage (known as Medicare Part D), because if you don’t take a Part D plan within your initial enrollment period you’ll be subject to a late enrollment penalty if you take a Part D plan later.
As for your wife getting benefits from you, I’m not clear if you’re referring to Medicare benefits or Social Security benefits. If your wife isn’t eligible for Medicare on her own (doesn’t have enough Social Security credits) she can enroll on your record when she turns 65. If you are referring to your wife getting Social Security spousal benefits from you, she may be able to when you have started to collect your own benefit, if she is at least 62 and if any benefit she is due on her own is smaller than she is eligible for as your spouse.