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Wives and Widows Treated Differently

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This column contains questions from women about Social Security benefits they are due either as a wife or a widow. I was recently chastised by a reader for always assuming all people due spousal benefits are women. I don't automatically assume that. As I've pointed out in this column many times in the past, all Social Security rules are equal. In other words, men and women are potentially eligible for the same kinds of benefits. But, society hasn't been equal. For a variety of reasons, men have generally made more money than women throughout their working career, so men get higher Social Security benefits than women do. Consequently, there are MANY more women who are due benefits on their husband's Social Security record then there are men due benefits on their wife's account. All these questions happened to come from women.

Q: I am 57 years old and married. My first husband died many years ago. I understand that when I turn 60, I can apply for widow's benefits on my first husband's Social Security account and then later switch to full benefits on my own. And I further understand that I could only do this if I divorce my current husband. Is this true? And then how long would I have to be divorced before I could collect my widow's benefits?

A: I take it your current marriage is not a bed of roses, huh? But you are right. If you got a divorce, then after a two year waiting period, you would be able to claim widow's benefits from your first husband. At age 60, you would be due 70 percent of his rate. If you can survive on that, then at age 66, you could switch to 100 percent of your own retirement benefit. Or you could wait until age 70 and switch to 132 percent of your benefit, because you would earn a 32 percent bonus for delaying your own Social Security until that age.

Q: I am 63 and my husband is 67. We are both getting our own Social Security checks. I wrote to you about a year ago and asked if I could take my husband's Social Security at 62 and then at 66, switch to my own full retirement benefit. You said no. But then in a column I saw a month or so ago, you told a woman that she could do just that. So did you mislead me? Or did you mislead this other woman?

A: I didn't mislead anyone. I gave both of you correct information. The reason you got different answers is that there is a huge difference between your cases. She was a widow. And you are not.

As I've explained thousands of times in this column, you can NOT take reduced benefits on one record and later switch to full benefits on another record. The law simply forbids you from doing that. But there is one big exception to that rule. And that exception applies to widows. As I explained to the woman who sent the first question, a widow can take reduced widow's benefits at 60 (or any age before 66) and then later switch to full benefits on her own record.

Or, she can take her own reduced retirement benefits at 62 and switch to full widow's benefits at age 66. Which way she goes depends on the money amounts involved.

But you are not a widow. So, again, the rules prevent you from taking reduced benefits on one record and switching to other benefits later on. However, those rules change dramatically if you wait until age 66 to file. If you had done that, then you would have had options. These are options I've discussed many times in past columns. But just as one example, you could have filed for wife's benefits at 66 and then at 70, switched to 132 percent of your own retirement benefit.

Q: I am about to turn 62. I want to take my Social Security now. I am due a very small amount because I spent much of my life as a homemaker. My husband is only 59. He plans to wait until 66 to file for his own Social Security. He always made good money, so could I switch to his benefits when he starts drawing them? And if so, how much will I get?

A: I purposely put your question right behind the last one to further elaborate on the rules I outlined above. There I said a woman could not file for reduced benefits on one record and later switch to full benefits on another.

In your case, you can make the switch — but you will not really get full benefits. I'll explain in a minute. But first I must point out that the difference between your situation and the one outlined in the previous question is that your husband will not be getting his own Social Security at the time you file for reduced benefits on your own.

When he turns 66 and files for his, you can then file for wife's benefits on his record. Here is how they will figure out what you are due. They will take your full age-66 rate (even though you will be taking benefits at 62) and subtract that from one half of his full age-66 rate. The difference will be added to your reduced retirement rate.

By the way, there is one more option you guys would have. When your husband turns 66, he could file and restrict. This is a procedure I've explained many times previously. In a nutshell, he would file for husband's benefits on your account and continue to get that until he reaches 70, when he would file for his retirement and get 132 percent of his full rate.

Then at that point, you could file for wife's benefits on his record. The benefit would be figured exactly as I described above, because your benefit is based on his age 66 rate, not his age-70 rate.

However, if he dies before you do, then your reduced retirement benefit would be supplemented up to his full age 70 amount — in other words, the 132 percent rate.

You know, I just went back and re-read my answer to your question. I know it sounds convoluted. But I explained it as simply as I can. If I were smart, I'd get off my retired duff and open up a Social Security consulting business. I think I'd be rich!

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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