Social Security Options for Widows and Widowers to Consider

By Tom Margenau

May 24, 2017 7 min read

Q: My husband died in 2009. I continued working until I was 62 in 2013. I then started drawing widow's benefits. In February of this year, when I turned 66, I went to the Social Security office to apply for my own benefits. I thought I could get both retirement and widow's benefits. But they told me no. They said I could only receive my own benefit because it was higher. Is this correct? It doesn't seem fair. By the way, I was getting $1,870 in widow's benefits until I switched to $2,120 in my own retirement.

A: It is correct. And I believe you'll think it's fair once I explain it to you. Also, at the end of my answer, I'm going to give you another Social Security option that's available to you.

As a general rule, if you are due two Social Security benefits, you don't get them both. You only get the one that pays the higher rate. Although frequently a widow will get benefits off of two records, if her own benefit is less than her husband's. For example, let's switch your benefit rates. Let's say you were due $1,870 in retirement benefits and $2,120 in widow's benefits. In that case, they would pay your own $1,870 benefit first. Then they would give you $250 in widow's benefit to take you up to your husband's $2,120 rate. In other words, you're technically getting benefits off of two accounts. In reality, you're really just getting a widow's benefit rate of $2,120.

But in your case, your own benefit exceeds what you are due on your husband's account, so you simply get your own higher retirement benefit.

As far as the fairness of getting only the higher benefit, think of it this way: Benefits for spouses and widows(ers) are legally considered "dependent" benefits. You normally would get a spousal benefit only if you were financially dependent on your husband. But you had your own job. And it must have been a better paying job than your husband had because you get a bigger Social Security benefit. So you were not dependent on him while you were working. And now that you are retired and getting your own higher retirement check, you shouldn't be due any dependent benefits.

Or here is another way to think of that. If the government paid you both your own and your husband's benefits, then every other married person in the country should be able to claim the same. I should get my own Social Security and I should get husband's benefits on my wife's record. And for that matter, she should get her own Social Security and get a wife's benefits on my record. The Social Security system would go broke tomorrow if everybody in the country got both their own Social Security benefit and a spousal benefit.

And now let me tell you about the option I hinted about earlier. Instead of switching to your own retirement benefits at 66, you might have been better off waiting until age 70 to make that switch. By waiting that long, you would be due a total of 32 percent in "delayed retirement credits." In other words, instead of getting 100 percent of your benefit at age 66, or the $2,120 you mentioned, you would get 132 percent at 70, or almost $2,800.

And it's not too late for you to make that switch. The law allows you to change your mind and withdraw your claim up to six months after you filed. You are still within that six-month window. In other words, you could withdraw your retirement claim and switch back to your widow's benefits. You would have to repay the difference between those rates, or $250, for the four months you've already received your own benefit.

So you'd have to write a check for $1,000 as part of the withdrawal process. And if you think you can live on that $1,870 widow's benefits for the next four years, you'd then start getting a $2,800 retirement check with the extra credits. You will just have to sit down with a good calculator and do the math and decide if it's worth it.

Q: We have an interesting situation. I am a 64-year-old widower. My wife is a 66-year-old widow. We have been married for two years. I am getting widower's benefits off my first wife's record (she was the higher wage earner) and my current wife is getting widow's benefits from her first husband. But her benefit rate is very low because she didn't work and her first husband spent most of his life in England and didn't work very long in this country. Can I continue getting widower's benefits until age 70, and then switch to 132 percent of my own? And can my current wife switch to spousal benefits on my record?

A: You do have an unusual Social Security situation. And before I answer your questions, I must explain to my readers why you are each getting widow's benefits from prior spouses even though you are married to each other. Normally, a marriage to a new spouse would end any entitlement you might have to Social Security benefits from a prior spouse. But the law says if you are getting benefits as a widow(er) and get married after age 60 (which you did), then you can keep the benefits you are getting from your first spouses.

The answer to both your questions is yes. You could wait until age 70 to make the switch to your own retirement benefits. And your wife can get spousal benefits on your record. But here is the deal. She would not be able to make the switch to wife's benefits on your account until you are drawing benefits yourself. So if you wait until age 70, she'd have to wait until you are 70, too (when she'll be 72).

Another option would be for you to take your own retirement benefits now. Then your wife could switch to spousal benefits right away. Just as I explained to the widow in the first answer, you will have to get out your calculator to run the numbers and decide what to do.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] 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

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