Let's Just Reach Into the Mailbag

By Tom Margenau

February 26, 2020 7 min read

I have just returned from a six-week trip to Australia and New Zealand. (I met more than a few Australian and New Zealand pensioners on this trip, and I'm thinking of a future column comparing their Social Security systems with ours.)

But right now, I've got hundreds of backed-up emails to answer. So, for today's column, instead of concentrating on a single issue, I'm going to just reach into that electronic mailbag and answer whichever question I pull out.

Q: My husband recently died. I am 60 years old and working full time, making about $70,000 per year. Should I file for Social Security now? Or should I wait until I retire, which will probably be in three years?

A: First of all, you can't file for Social Security now. Anyone who is under full retirement age (currently 66) and working full time isn't eligible for any kind of Social Security.

But once you retire, you will have some options. It sounds like you'll be about 63 at the time. At that age, you could file for reduced widows benefits. You'd get about 86% of your husband's normal retirement benefit. Then, at 66, you can switch to 100% of your own retirement rate. Or you could wait until 70 and switch to 132% of your full benefit.

On the other hand, depending on the money amounts involved, it might be more advantageous for you to file for reduced retirement benefits when you retire and then switch to a 100% widows rate when you reach age 66. (There is no bonus for delaying widows benefits beyond full retirement age, so there would be no advantage to waiting after age 66 to file for widows benefits.)

And just so other readers know, this option of starting one benefit at a reduced rate and later switching to another benefit at a higher rate is available only to widows and widowers.

Q: I don't understand this. Why should a woman who has been married to her husband for only 10 years get the same widows rate that I do? My husband and I were married for 40 years. I think the benefit should be prorated based on the number of years you were married.

A: I've heard arguments similar to yours before. I'm not really sure why ideas like yours have never seriously been considered. I've got a hunch it would be kind of messy to calculate and administer such prorated benefits.

I will share this bit of trivia from my Social Security past. When I started working for the Social Security Administration in the early 1970s, the law said a divorced woman had to be married for at least 20 years to get benefits from her ex-husband's Social Security.

Sometime in the 1980s, following pressure from lots of women in this country, Congress lowered the duration of marriage rule to 10 years. I remember watching Congressional hearings on the issue in which the women testifying essentially said: "Being married to that jerk for 10 years was long enough. I deserve all of that bum's Social Security for all the [email protected]#$% I had to put up with." (The actual language they used was much more polite and tactful. But you get my drift.)

Q: I am 66 and plan to wait until age 70 to file for my Social Security. My wife is 62 and eligible for a smaller Social Security check on her own account. If she takes a reduced retirement benefit now, will that reduce her future widows benefit on my account?

A: No. Only two things affect your wife's eventual widows benefits on your record. One is whether or not you took reduced benefits. If you did, that reduction carries over to her future widows rate. But you're not doing that, so it's not an issue.

The other thing that affects your wife's eventual widows benefit is her age at the time she files for such benefits. Assuming she is over her full retirement age when that happens, she will get 100% of whatever you were getting at the time of death. And that will include the 32% bonus that is going to be added to your retirement check for waiting until age 70 to file.

And one more note about that 32% bonus: As I said, a widow shares in that bonus. But a wife does not. In other words, while you are alive, any spousal benefits she might be due on your record will be based on your age 66 benefit rate. But after you die, her widows rate will be based on your age 70 rate.

Q: I am 42 years old and normally would never be interested in your column or other Social Security matters. But I've just learned that I may not have long to live. I have a wife and two young kids. What will happen to them from a Social Security perspective after I am gone?

A: So sorry to hear about your health prognosis. But maybe I can help ease some of your worries with this information.

After you die, each of your children will get a monthly Social Security check equal to 75% of your full Social Security benefit rate. The benefit computation formula is way too complicated to explain in this short space. But essentially, they figure your benefit as though you had turned full retirement age at the time you die. And again, each child gets 75% of that every month. And they will get those benefits until they are 18 years old.

The checks will come in your wife's name on behalf of the kids. If your wife is working, she won't get her own survivor benefit. But if she is not working, she might be due a small monthly amount on your record. The rules are too messy to explain, but there is a maximum amount that can be paid to the family of a deceased parent. The two survivor benefits paid to your kids won't reach that maximum. But usually, adding a third beneficiary (in this case, your wife) would cross that maximum threshold. So, she wouldn't get a full 75% benefit, but she might be due something.

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: geralt at Pixabay

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