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Explaining the Calculation Behind Widow's and Wives' Benefits
Q: I am retired and get about $900 per month. My ex-husband also is retired and he's getting $1,600 per month. I had always assumed that I will have to wait until he dies before I'd be able to get some of his Social Security. But after reading a recent column you wrote, it sounds like I could be getting some of his Social Security now. Is this true?
A: Based on the Social Security benefit amounts you gave me, it is NOT true in your case.
Many women think that their husband, or ex-husband, has to be deceased before they can collect part of his Social Security benefits. But a woman can get part of her husband's (or ex-husband's) Social Security while he's still alive IF her own benefit is significantly smaller than his. In your case, your benefit just isn't small enough. Or, we could say his just isn't big enough!
The Social Security Administration always pays a woman her own retirement benefit first. Then it looks to see if she might be due some supplemental benefits as a wife from her husband's record. As a general rule, a woman can be supplemented up to half of her husband's (or ex-husband's) Social Security benefit. But that is only if she did not take early retirement benefits on her own record. If she took her own Social Security before reaching her "full retirement age," then she could be due a supplement up to as little as about one-fourth of her husband's Social Security rate.
The percentages explained above apply to a woman whose husband (or ex) is still alive.
If he is deceased, the percentage of the supplement goes up. Once again, SSA will generally pay a woman her own retirement benefit first. Then they look to see if she can get a widow's supplement on her husband's record (or a divorced widow's supplement on her ex-husband's record). A woman who becomes a widow (and starts collecting widow's benefits) at 66 or older, will usually qualify for a supplement up to 100 percent of her husband's Social Security benefit.
Let's use your case as an example. You said you are getting $900 per month and your ex-husband is getting $1,600 per month. I am going to assume that both of you waited until your full retirement age to start your Social Security benefits. If one or both of you took early retirement benefits, then the amount due would be different.
While your ex is alive, the maximum supplement you could receive would be up to $800 (50 percent of his benefit). Because your own retirement benefit of $900 exceeds your maximum wife's benefit rate, you aren't due any wife's supplement. On the other hand, had your husband's rate been $2,000 per month, for example, then your retirement benefit could be supplemented up to half of that, or $1,000. In other words, SSA would pay you your own $900 retirement benefit - and then give you a $100 per month wife's supplement to take you up to the $1,000 level.
When your ex-husband dies, you would be due a widow's supplement up to 100 percent of his rate. So, when that happens, SSA will continue to pay your $900 retirement benefit, and supplement that with $700 in widow's benefits on his record to take you up to his $1,600 rate.
Please bear in mind that this is a very broad-brushed explanation of benefit computations for wives and widows (and divorced wives and divorced widows). I really just hinted at all the variables that might be involved. So the bottom line message is that you should always check with your local Social Security office to go over all the particulars of your case and let them decide if and when you are due benefits from your husband's or ex-husband's Social Security record.
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