Q: I think you made an error in a recent column. You said anyone can file for Social Security benefits online. But when I tried to file for widow's benefits online, I learned that I could not do that. Were you wrong?
A: Yes, I was. I checked, and sure enough, a widow must file a claim in person either by phone or at her local Social Security office. I'm not sure if that has always been the case, or if it was a recent change. I'm guessing the latter because the Social Security Administration just got its hands slapped by the agency's own Inspector General. He conducted an audit and discovered that SSA was not doing a good enough job of explaining the options a widow has when she signs up for Social Security benefits. And therein lies a story.
But before I tell that story, I must make three things clear. First, these same rules would apply to a man eligible for widower's benefits. But because 95 percent of all benefits paid to surviving spouses go to women, and because I don't want to muddy up my column with a lot of "he/she" and "him/her" pronouns, I'm going to address this column to women and widows. Second, the options I am going to discuss today only apply to a woman who has worked outside the home and who has earned her own Social Security retirement benefit. And third, these options will only work for a woman who becomes a widow before her full retirement age (currently age 66). Having said all that, I will have a message for other widows at the end of today's column.
As a general rule, if you file for reduced benefits, that benefit will remain reduced for the rest of your life. And a corollary rule says this: You usually cannot take reduced benefits on one record and later switch to higher benefits on another record.
But those rules do not apply to widows. A woman could start out taking reduced retirement benefits on her own record and later (usually at age 66) switch to full widow's benefits on her husband's Social Security account. Or she could do the reverse: She could begin with reduced widow's benefits and later change over to full retirement benefits. Let's follow some examples.
Mary is 61 years old when her husband dies. Although she is now retired, she had worked much of her life. Her own full retirement benefit is $1,850. Her husband's full rate is $2,000. Mary could file for reduced widow's benefits. At age 61, she would be due roughly 77 percent of her husband's benefit, or $1,540 per month. She could receive that until age 66, when she could switch to 100 percent of her benefit, or $1,850. Or she could wait until age 70 to make the change, at which point she would get 132 percent of her retirement rate, or about $2,440. The latter sounds like a pretty attractive choice.
And just to make it clear, Mary would have another option. If she waits until she is 62 years old, she could file for reduced retirement benefits first. She would get 75 percent of her $1,850 benefit, or $1,480. Then at age 66, she could switch to 100 percent widow's benefits, or $2,000 monthly. (Unlike the retirement program, there is no bonus paid to widows if they delay filing beyond age 66.)
Now let me give a more realistic example. Many working women are still at their jobs into their 60s and even beyond. So let's look at Ann. She is 64 and still working full time. Her husband died several years ago. When he died, she filed for and received the little $255 one-time death benefit, but she wasn't due any monthly widow's benefits because she was still working. Let's say her own full (age 66) retirement benefit would be $2,200. Her husband's full benefit would have been $2,500. Once Ann reaches age 66, her earnings no longer affect her Social Security eligibility. So at that point, Ann should file for widow's benefits. She would get $2,500 per month. Then when she turns 70, she could switch to 132 percent of her retirement rate, or about $2,900.
As I said earlier, all of these switching back and forth between benefit rules apply to women who become widows in their 60s or earlier. But the vast majority of women (and most of those reading this column) become widows later in life — in their 70s, 80s and beyond. Women who become widows at those ages don't have to worry about any of the options discussed today. When their husband dies, they simply will be switched to widow's benefits on his record — assuming he was getting higher benefits. Let's look at more examples.
Lucia was 81 years old when her 84-year-old husband, Alfredo, died. He was getting $2,150 per month and she was getting $1,640. Now that Alfredo is gone, she will keep getting her own $1,640, and then she will get an additional $510 in widow's benefits to take her up to Alfredo's $2,150 level. Lucia would have to file a claim for widow's benefits — and she would have to do it via phone by calling SSA at 800-772-1213. Or if she prefers, she could call the same number and make an appointment to file a widow's claim in person at her local Social Security office. By the way, Lucia would have to provide a certified copy of her marriage certificate (as well as the death certificate) as part of the application process.
Now let's look at another 81-year-old widow — Barbara. When her husband, Frank, died, she was simply and automatically converted to widow's benefits once she called SSA to report the death and supplied them with proof of death. Why is that? Because Barbara was getting only a dependent wife's benefit on Frank's account before he died. In other words, she didn't have her own Social Security account. Because she has no claim of her own, and because she would have already had to supply a marriage certificate when she first applied for spousal benefits many years ago, SSA already has all the information they would need to know she is eligible for widow's benefits. They simply push a few buttons and the conversion from wife's to widow's benefits is complete.
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.