Widows Have Questions About Social Security

By Tom Margenau

September 19, 2018 7 min read

Q: I was getting my own Social Security. Then my husband died and they started paying me his Social Security and took away my own. But why did they do that? Aren't they two separate benefits and I deserve both?

A: The law says if you are due two different Social Security benefits, you don't get them both. You only get the one that pays the higher rate. And if you think about it, the law makes sense. Without it, everyone in the country who is married or who has ever been married would get two full benefits — their own and something from their spouse. So I would get my own Social Security check and I also would get a husband's benefit on my wife's account. And then she would get her own benefit and a wife's benefit on my account. And then Warren Buffet would get his own retirement check and a husband's benefit on his wife's account. And Warren's wife would get ... I think you see where I'm going with this. If the law allowed everyone to get every benefit he or she is due, the Social Security system would have gone belly up a long time ago.

And if it makes you feel any better, you are getting benefits from two accounts. That's because the rules say if you are due anything on your own record, you will be paid that first, and then get any extra benefits you might be due from your spouse. For example, let's say your husband's benefit was $2,000 per month and your own monthly retirement check was $1,600. When your husband died, you kept getting your own $1,600 and then you started getting an additional $400 from your husband's account to take you up to his $2,000 rate. I know you just get one check for $2,000 per month and you understandably assume you are only getting a widow's benefit. But again, on Social Security's books, you are being paid on off of two records.

Q: I am my husband's second wife. He died about a year ago. I just turned 60 and started getting widow's benefits. His first wife is also getting widow's benefits on his record. When she dies, will my rate go up?

A: No it won't. Any Social Security money paid to an ex-wife is just add-on benefit. It takes nothing away from anything you are due on your husband's account. So if she dies before you do, nothing will change.

Q: My husband died about six months ago. He was 78. I am 74. I was a stay-at-home mom throughout our marriage. So I don't have my own Social Security. I was getting a spousal benefit on his record before he died. And after his death, I started getting widow's benefits. I have read in some of your past columns that when a husband dies, the widow gets what her husband got at the time of death. But I started getting a little more. He got $1,368 when he died. And I am now getting $1,505. Should I be worried that they are paying me too much money and will someday ask for it back?

A: Don't worry. I'm sure you are being paid correctly. And I think I know why you are getting a higher rate than your husband was getting before he died.

You were right when you quoted me as saying that a woman over age 66 starts getting a widow's benefit that equals what her husband was getting at the time of death. But I should have added a qualifier: I should have said she gets that "as a general rule."

And you are an exception to that rule. Here is why. Even though you didn't say, I bet your husband started taking his Social Security at age 62. That meant he was getting an amount equal to 75 percent of his full retirement benefit. And that would normally be your widow's rate. But there is a rule that says a widow over age 62 is guaranteed to get at least 82.5 percent of her husband's full benefit. So that's why you are getting a little more than your husband.

Q: My husband died about 25 years ago. At the time, I was in my 40s with two small children. They got monthly survivors benefits and for a while, I was getting a check, too. Those benefits stopped many years ago. Now I am about to turn 66. I'm still working and plan to keep working as long as I can. I never remarried. A friend at work told me that because I got widow's benefits all those years ago, that I have used up any money I am due on his record and can only rely on my Social Security. Is this true?

A: Nope. Your friend is wrong. You can never "use up" money from any Social Security account. In fact, you should get ready to employ the widow's maximizing option. Here's how that works. When you turn 66, you should apply for widow's benefits. You will get 100 percent of your husband's current Social Security rate. In other words, it will be updated for inflation so you won't be getting the smaller benefit you were getting a quarter-century ago. Even though you are working, because you will be over age 66, you are due full widow's benefits with no reduction because of your earnings.

Then when you turn 70, you should switch to your own retirement benefits. At that age, you will get 132 percent of your full retirement rate.

Q: I'm 80 years old. How come when my husband died last year all I got was the little $255 burial check while all my other widow friends are getting monthly benefits from their dead husband's account?

A: You didn't give me enough information to fully answer your question. But I'm guessing that you are getting your own Social Security retirement benefit and that it exceeds what you are due as a widow. I can't imagine that of all your friends, you are the only one who worked and earned her own Social Security check. I will bet that more than a few of those friends of yours are also getting their own Social Security retirement check and are not being paid the widow's benefits they claim to be getting.

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 www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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