Last year, the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General completed an audit and issued a report critical of how the agency handled claims from widows. It said that SSA clerks were doing a poor job of informing widows that they had the option of taking widow's benefits at 66 and delaying starting their own benefits until 70 — at which point they would get a 32 percent "delayed retirement credit" added to their checks.
Based on a rather small sample of 50 beneficiaries, OIG estimated that about 9,000 women nationwide would have been eligible for a higher monthly benefit amount had they delayed their retirement application for their own benefits until age 70.
SSA officials essentially agreed with the report. The inspector general recommended the agency fix the situation for those 50 beneficiaries used as examples in the report, remind employees to discuss the option of delaying benefits with widows and widowers, and determine whether it should develop additional controls to ensure employees inform people of their options.
Before I go on, I want to make something crystal clear. Even though the numbers in the OIG report sound big, there are about 6 million women getting widow's benefits, and almost all of them are being paid correctly. For example, the report is not talking about the vast majority of women who become widows later in life — in their late 60s or 70s or beyond. Whatever widow's benefits they might be getting are rather simply figured (simple for SSA's computers, I mean) and there are no decisions about their own retirement benefits that need to be made. The report is talking about women who become widows generally before age 66 and who have a high enough benefit on their own work record so that the possibility of delaying their retirement benefits until age 70 becomes attractive.
Here's an example. Mary is 62 years old. Her 68-year-old husband just died. He was getting a full retirement age benefit of $1,750 from Social Security. Mary is retired and wants to start drawing Social Security. And her own full retirement rate is $2,150. Her reduced benefit at 62 would be 75 percent of that or about $1,612. Her reduced widow's rate would be about 82 percent of her husband's benefit, $1,435. So initially Mary might think it would be best to go with the higher $1,612 benefit on her own record. But she also has the option of taking her widow's rate now. She would start out getting the $1,435 amount. Then at 66, she could switch to her full retirement rate of $2,150. Or if she can continue to live on the $1,435 widow's benefit, she could wait until age 70 and get 132 percent of her full retirement rate, or $2,838.
Today's question comes from a woman whose situation doesn't quite follow the kind highlighted in the OIG report. But it still is an example of a widow who was steered in the wrong direction by an SSA representative.
Q: I am a 78-year-old widow. My husband died when he was 42 and I was 40. I never remarried. Even though I was still working, I went to the Social Security office when I was 66. I wanted to file for widow's benefits. The Social Security agent told me that because my husband had been dead for so long, they no longer had his records. He advised me to file on my own record, which I did. This has bothered me for years. Recently, I saw a column you wrote telling a widow to do just what I was told I couldn't do. Now I wonder if I can get my widow's benefits added to my own retirement. Could I get your thoughts on this?
A: I am afraid you were sadly and regrettably misled by that Social Security clerk 12 years ago. The Social Security Administration has records for everyone in the country going back to 1935. So to be told that your husband's records no longer existed was not only wrong but downright shameful.
This would be a good time to re-emphasize a point I've made hundreds of times in this column. If you ever have any doubt about your possible eligibility for some kind of Social Security benefit, or if you just don't feel comfortable with the information an SSA representative is giving you, always insist on filing a claim . You have every right to do so. And by filing an actual claim, you will get a formal and legal decision about your eligibility. You will not have to settle for some clerk's opinion on the matter.
It's just too bad you probably weren't reading my column 12 years ago. Had you insisted on filing a widow's claim, you would have received those benefits until you were 70, and when you could have switched to 132 percent of your own retirement benefit. But I'm afraid that is all water under the bridge.
You asked if you could now get your widow's benefits added to your own retirement checks. And I'm sorry, but the answer is no. When you are due two benefits, you get the one that pays the higher rate, not both. And because you worked until past age 70, I'm sure your own benefit exceeds what you would be due as a widow.
So what can you do now? Normally, I would just tell you that it's too late. Appeal rights usually end two months after a decision is rendered. In other words, when your retirement benefits were granted to you back at age 66, you would have had 60 days to challenge that decision.
But you were ripped off to the tune of probably tens of thousands of dollars due to negligence. I suggest you go to your local SSA office. Demand to speak to the manager. Tell him or her your story. And mention that you heard that SSA's inspector general recently issued a report chastising the agency for shortchanging widows like you. Ask him or her if the agency has any plans to take care of women like you, and not just the 50 or so women who were identified in the study. I'm pretty sure there is nothing they can do. But I still think you should ruffle their feathers a bit!
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.