Social Security and You: Benefits for wives, widows, exes
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Social Security and You: Benefits for wives, widows, exes

Every single day, I get emails from women wondering if they are missing out on some kind of Social Security benefits. These are almost always women in their late 60s or even in their 70s and 80s. They are either getting their own Social Security retirement benefits and wonder if they should be getting more money from their husband’s Social Security account. Or they are already getting benefits from their spouse, but wonder if they might be due higher benefits from an ex-husband’s record.

I’ve learned from their emails that their anxiety and confusion stems from one of three sources. The most common is a neighbor or friend, usually a self-proclaimed Social Security expert, who tells them that they should be getting more money each month from the government.

The second misleading source is the Internet. And I don’t think I need to remind too many of my readers that the Internet is usually not the most reliable source of information about Social Security benefits.

And sadly, the third source of many readers’ confusion is me. Usually it is because they have read something I wrote about various forms of spousal benefits, but they have missed a key eligibility factor. Here is a typical example.

Reader’s email: “I am 72 years old and my husband is 75. He gets $1,500 per month and I get only $525. Your recent column said that a woman gets half of her husband’s Social Security. Why am I getting so little?

My response: “In that recent column, I said that a woman can get up to 50 percent of her husband’s Social Security benefit IF she waited until 66 to claim those benefits. You must have taken benefits at around age 62 because you’re getting about a third of his, which is the proper payment amount for someone in your situation.”

So let me spend the rest of this column clarifying some points about what a woman is due from Social Security.

I must start with this point: It is highly likely that you are getting all the Social Security benefits you are due. The Social Security Administration is very good at identifying potential eligibility for various Social Security benefits. And their computers are programmed to catch possible entitlement issues on other accounts. In other words, if you file for your own retirement benefits and have a husband already getting Social Security, agency computers will cross reference those accounts to determine if you are due anything from another record.

As a general rule, if a woman has worked and earned her own Social Security retirement, she will be paid that benefit first. After she gets that, the Social Security Administration will look at her husband’s record to see if she can get any extra benefits from his account.

How much she can get from his record depends on her age. The most she can get (assuming her husband is still alive) is half. She would get that if she waits until age 66 to file for benefits. But she does not get a full spousal benefit added on top of her own. She just gets supplemented up to his rate. Here is a quick example: Mary files for Social Security at age 62. Her full (age-66) retirement rate is $800 and her reduced age 62 rate is $600. Her husband John is 67 years old and is getting $2,200 per month. Because she is 62, Mary’s spousal rate is about one third of Bill’s benefit — or $733. Mary will get her own $600 retirement benefit, and get an extra $133 in wife’s benefits, for a total of $733.

Actually, the more common situation is that a working woman won’t get anything from her husband’s Social Security account — at least while he is alive. And that’s because her own retirement benefit usually exceeds the small percentage she is due from her husband.

And now, let’s talk about widow’s benefits. A woman who is over age 66 when her husband dies will generally start getting 100 percent of the benefit he was getting when he died. Or her own retirement benefit will be supplemented up to that level. Here is a quick example. Jerry was getting $2,100 per month when he died. His wife, Carole, was getting her own Social Security retirement benefit of $1,700. Carole will keep getting that $1,700 check, but she will also start getting $400 in widow’s benefits to take her total income up to $2,100.

Widows can get benefits as early as age 60. At that age, she gets 70 percent of her husband’s Social Security benefit. Women under age 60 would qualify for widow’s benefits only if they are caring for a deceased husband’s minor children. Also, in rare cases, a disabled widow with no minor children can get benefits as early as age 50.

Widows have one major advantage other Social Security beneficiaries do not have. They can take reduced benefits on one record and later switch to full benefits on another record. For example, a woman whose husband has died could take reduced widow’s benefits at age 60, and switch to full benefits on her own retirement account at 66, or even higher benefits if she waits until age 70.

And finally, there is the whole issue of benefits for divorced women. In most cases, a divorced woman can get the same benefits as a currently married woman. As a general rule, she would get benefits from an ex-husband’s record IF: 1) She was married to her ex for at least 10 years; 2) she is not currently married to someone else; 3) she is at least 62 years old and her husband is at least 62 years old; and 4) she is not due higher benefits on her own Social Security record.

A divorced woman whose ex has died would have to meet the same eligibility requirements, and would get the same widow’s benefits, as a widow who was married to her husband at the time of death.

One final note: A woman who is potentially due Social Security from two (or more) ex-husbands doesn’t get benefits from all of them. She will only get benefits from the account that pays the highest rate.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. He worked 32 years for the Social Security Administration. Email questions to him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net

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