Questions About Widower Benefits

By Tom Margenau

January 6, 2016 7 min read

Q: Can a widower get benefits in the same way a widow gets benefits? In the community where I live, I know lots of widows and widowers. Most of the widows are getting their husband's Social Security. But I don't know of any widowers who get their wife's Social Security.

A: Social Security rules are gender neutral. So a widower could qualify for monthly Social Security survivor benefits in the same way a widow does. It just doesn't happen that often. And the numbers bear this out. There are almost 5 million women getting widow's benefits, but only 83,000 men getting widower's benefits.

The reason for that disparity is not because Social Security laws are unfair. But rather because society hasn't been fair to women in the workforce, and thus to their surviving spouses. We all have heard the statistics that show women make less money than men. And we also know that women tend to take more time off from work to raise kids. And those lesser earnings for fewer years translate into smaller Social Security benefits for women and rare chances for their surviving husbands to claim widower's benefits.

Or to put that another way, as a general rule, when you are due two benefits (usually your own or a benefits from a spouse's account), you don't get both benefits. You only get the one that pays the higher rate. That's why most men get their own retirement benefits and not any spousal benefits from a wife's record.

Q: My wife died last month following a 40 year marriage. I always made more money than she did. So my benefits greatly exceed hers. Am I to understand that I am therefore not due any of her Social Security? I will be 62 next month and plan to retire then.

A: I purposely put your question right behind the last one to demonstrate that things aren't always so cut and dried as they seem in the Social Security world. That "general rule" I just cited doesn't always apply.

In my answer to the first question, I just finished saying that men usually don't get widower's benefits because they are frequently due higher benefits on their own Social Security account. But because of a little twist in the rules that usually applies only to widows and widowers, you might want to consider applying for benefits on your wife's record. That "little twist" says you can file for reduced widow's benefits now, and later switch to full benefits on your own record. It is important to note that widows and widowers can do that, but wives and husbands (with living spouses) cannot.

You didn't give the dollar amounts involved in your case. But I will make some up to demonstrate what I mean. Let's say your full retirement age benefit is $2,500 and that your wife's FRA benefit is $1,400. With respect to taking Social Security benefits starting at age 62 (as you said you wanted to do), you essentially have three options.

Option 1: you could file for reduced retirement benefits at 62. You would get 75 percent of your FRA rate, or $1,875. Except for annual cost of living increases, that would be your ongoing benefit rate for life.

Option 2: you could file for reduced widower's benefits at 62. You would get about 82 percent of your wife's full benefit, or about $1,150 per month. Then at 66, you could switch to 100 percent of your full monthly rate, or $2,500.

Option 3: the same as option 2, except that you wait until 70 to start your own benefits. You'd get a 32 percent "delayed retirement bonus" added to your monthly checks. So instead of $2,500, you'd get $3,300 per month.

In option one, you'd get $90,000 between age 62 and 66. In option two, you'd get $55,200 in the same four-year time span. So you'd lose $34,800. But beginning at age 66, you'd start getting $625 more per month than your ongoing option one rate. It would take you about 56 months to make up that money you lost.

Option two sounds mighty attractive to me. You could consider option three, of course. But you would have to live on that smaller widower's pension for eight years. Would you really want to do that?

Q: My mother recently died. I'm trying to help my 92-year-old dad file for any widower's or other death benefits he might be due. But the Social Security office wouldn't even talk to me even though I have power of attorney. What can I do?

A: We have several issues here. I'll take them on one at a time. First, assuming your father is getting higher monthly Social Security benefits than your mother was receiving, and assuming your parents were living together, then your dad would be due only the one time measly little $255 death benefit. (If you dad is getting less per month that your mom was, then he should also be filing for widower's benefits.)

Second, power of attorney really doesn't carry much weight for Social Security purposes. As you probably know, you can get the POA designation for a variety of reasons, whether or not your father is mentally capable of handling his own financial affairs. For example, you might have done that just because your father is physically incapable of doing many things.

But Social Security law says that if your father is mentally capable of taking care of his own Social Security business, then the Social Security Administration must deal directly with him, even though you have power of attorney.

Third, if he is not mentally competent, then you must file an application with SSA to be his "representative payee." As part of that process, you will have to get a medical professional to sign a document indicating that your father can't handle his Social Security affairs. Once you become his payee, you will be able to handle all of his Social Security business, including filing for that $255 death benefit.

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: Rachel Samanyi

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