I get lots of questions about widow's benefits. And surprisingly, most of them come from men concerned about the benefits their wives will get after they die. Here are some examples.
Q: I waited until I was 70 to start my Social Security. Those benefits just kicked in last month. I did that for two reasons: to maximize my retirement benefits and to make sure my 66-year-old wife gets the highest possible benefits after I am gone. So imagine my shock when I discovered that my wife's spousal rate is just 50 percent of my age 66 rate! Does this mean her future widow's benefits will also be based on my age 66 benefit amount?
A: Don't worry. After you die, your wife will get 100 percent of your age 70 rate. For reasons I've never fully understood, a wife does not share in the extra benefits a husband earns for delaying retirement until age 70, but a widow does.
Q: My wife and I are both 64. I am planning to wait until 70 to file for my own Social Security so my wife will get the maximum widow's benefit when I die. She was a homemaker all her life and doesn't have her own Social Security. But if I die before turning 70 — in other words, before starting my Social Security — will she get anything?
A: She will get widow's benefits when you die, whether or not you were getting any benefits before your death. The amount she will be due depends on how old she is when you die. If she is 66 or older when that happens, she will get 100 percent of whatever you were getting, or would have been getting, at the time of death. If she is under 66, her widow's rate is reduced roughly one-half of 1 percent for each month she is under age 66.
Q: I am 66 and just started getting my own Social Security. My wife is about to turn 62 and wants to start taking her own smaller Social Security check. I told her not to take reduced retirement benefits because that reduction will carry over to her future widow's benefits. Am I advising her correctly?
A: No, you are not. Her future widow's rate essentially depends on one thing only: Her age when you die. As explained above, if she is 66 or older when that happens, she will get 100 percent of your retirement benefit, less her own retirement rate. And it doesn't matter if that was a reduced retirement rate or not.
Here is a quick example. Let's say your age 66 rate is $2,200 per month, and her full retirement rate is $1,500. If she takes reduced retirement at 62, she'd get 75 percent of that, or $1,125. When you die, she would keep getting her $1,125, and she'd get an additional $1,075 in widow's benefits to take her up to your $2,200 level. If she waits until she is 66 to start her own retirement, meaning she'd be getting $1,500 per month when you die, then she would get an additional $700 from your account. Either way, she ends up with $2,200 per month in widow's benefits.
Q: My wife and I are both 72 years old. I started my Social Security when I was 62 and she took spousal benefits on my record at the same time. Now I'm upset with myself for doing that because I've heard that by taking reduced benefits, my wife's future widow's benefits also will be reduced. Is this true?
A: Yes, it's true. But there is a tiny bit of good news for you. By taking benefits at 62, you took a 25 percent reduction in benefits. In other words, you are getting 75 percent of your full retirement rate. But a widow over age 66 is guaranteed to get a minimum of 82.5 percent. So when you die, your wife's widow's rate will be slightly higher than what you were getting at the time of death.
Q: I get $2,450 per month from Social Security. My wife was a teacher who never paid into Social Security. But she does get $2,710 per month from her teacher's retirement. I was shocked to learn that because of some kind of offset, she won't get any of my Social Security when I die. Could this possibly be true? Why are teachers discriminated against like this?
A: Almost all teachers misunderstand the government pension offset law. What they don't realize is that a Social Security retirement benefit has always offset any spousal benefits due — dollar for dollar. In other words, if your wife were getting $2,710 in a Social Security retirement benefit instead of a teacher's retirement, she wouldn't get a nickel in widow's benefits after you die because her retirement rate exceeds her potential widow's rate (i.e., $2,710 is greater than $2,450).
The GPO law essentially says that teacher retirement pensions will be treated just like Social Security retirement pensions and will offset any spousal benefits. And in fact, the GPO law cuts teachers a deal. It says that only two-thirds of the teacher's pension will be used for the offset (as opposed to 100 percent for Social Security pensions). So when you die, your wife will get $644 in widow's benefits from Social Security, in addition to her $2,710 teacher's pension. (Two-thirds of $2,710 equals $1,806. $2,450 minus $1,806 equals $644.)
Q: I am making plans for when I die. I want to tell my wife exactly what she will have to do to get widow's benefits on my record. Does she have to file a claim with the Social Security people? Does she have to do that in person?
A: How your wife gets widow's benefits after you die depends on the type of benefit she was getting before you died. If she was getting a wife's benefit on your record, and nothing from her own account, she will be automatically converted to widow's benefits. No application is necessary. Once your death is reported to the Social Security Administration, they will simply push a few buttons to switch her from wife's to widow's benefits. But if she is getting her own Social Security benefits, then she must file a claim for widow's benefits. She can do that online at http://www.socialsecurity.gov or in person by calling SSA at 800-772-1213.
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.