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Social Security and You: More questions about widows benefits
Social Security and You

Social Security and You: More questions about widows benefits

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Sometimes, when I write a column about a certain topic, that column seems to generate more questions than answers. And that certainly was the case with a column I wrote about widows benefits just before the holidays. Ever since, my inbox has been crammed with emails from widows or about widows. And I even got some questions about benefits for widowers.

You wrote an interesting column about widows benefits. But you didn’t say anything about widowers. So, what about us guys? Can we get anything from Social Security if our wife dies first?

A: Legally, men are due the very same kind of survivor benefits as women. But practically, it doesn’t happen very often. Why? Because for a variety of reasons involving higher average salaries and longer working careers, a husband’s Social Security retirement benefit is almost always higher than his wife’s retirement benefit. And that means his potential widowers benefit (anywhere between 70% and 100% of his wife’s retirement rate) is less than his own Social Security check. That’s why men rarely get widowers benefits.

But there is one big exception to that normal scenario. A man could employ the widower version of the “widow’s option” explained in that prior column. For example, a guy could take widowers benefits anytime after age 60 if he’s not working or after full retirement age if he’s working and then, at 70, switch to about 132% of his own retirement benefit.

That was a good article you wrote about widows benefits. But I don’t think you covered our situation. My wife and I have very similar Social Security histories. We are both 73 years old. We both started our Social Security at age 62. I get about $1,600 per month on my record, and my wife gets $1,580 on her record. What will happen to our Social Security when one of us dies first?

A: You do have an interesting Social Security issue. Normally, I would tell you that if the person with the higher Social Security benefit dies first, the other would get the difference in survivor benefits. In other words, if you died first, your wife would keep getting her own $1,580, and then she would get an additional $20 in widows benefits to take her up to your $1,600 level. And then I would tell you that if she died first, you wouldn’t get any widowers benefits because your rate is already higher than hers. But if I told you all that, I would be misleading you. And here is why.

Because both you and your wife took benefits at age 62, you are each getting 75% of your full retirement age benefit. And there is a law that says a widow or widower in your situation is guaranteed to get 82% of the deceased full retirement age rate. If my little pocket calculator is right, your full retirement rate must be about $2,135. And your wife’s FRA rate must be about $2,110. So, 82% of $2,135 is $1,750. And 82% of $2,110 is $1,730.

So, if you die first, your wife will keep getting her $1,580, and then she will get $170 in widows benefits to take her up to 82% of your FRA rate. And if your wife dies first, you will keep getting your own $1,600, and then you will get $130 in widowers benefits to take you up to 82% of her FRA rate.

My husband died three years ago. I was 68 at the time, and he was 70. When I called Social Security and asked about possible widows benefits, they said I was only due the small $255 death benefit. My own Social Security is about twice as much as he was getting. But your recent column about widows benefits makes me think I am missing out. Am I?

A: I hope that column didn’t mislead you. You are not missing out on anything. Because your own benefit is so much higher than what your husband was getting, you are not due any widows benefits.

I was married to my first husband for 20 years. He died when I was 53. When I was 58, I married another man. I’m now 62. I thought I would be able to get widows benefits from my first husband. But I called Social Security, and they told me that, because I remarried before I was 60, I can’t get any widows benefits. I don’t understand this. I was married to him for more than 10 years. Can you help me understand this?

A: Let me start with the 10-year issue you mentioned. That has nothing to do with your situation. The 10-year duration of marriage rule only comes into play in cases involving divorced wives or widows. So, you could have been married to your first husband for one year or 10 years or 30 years and it would have no bearing on your case.

What does have a bearing on your case is the fact that you are now married to another man. For years, the law had always said you must be unmarried to collect widows benefits. The thinking was this: Why should you get “dependent” widows benefits from one husband when you are married to another husband?

That was the law until sometime in the 1980s when there was a slew of news stories about sweet little old widow ladies who were “living in sin” with a man — because they knew if they officially tied the knot and got married, she would lose her widows benefits. Those news stories embarrassed conservative members of Congress who were ashamed to admit there was a federal law that encouraged these women to “sin.” They couldn’t act quickly enough to change the law. So, for the last 30 years or so, the law has said that if a widow remarries after age 60, she would still be eligible for benefits from her deceased first husband.

And darn it, you remarried two years earlier, at 58. I guess Congress figured you just were not enough of a “sweet little old widow lady” at that age to warrant getting benefits from husband No. 1 while being married to husband No. 2.

Tom Margenau is part of the Creators Syndicate, www.creators.com.


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