Three Reasons to Switch to Your Own Social Security

By Tom Margenau

November 25, 2015 7 min read

Q: I am about to turn 70, and I'm still working. When I was 66, I filed for widow's benefits on my husband's record. At the time, my own retirement benefit was less than my husband's rate. My plan was to let mine build up over time, hoping that by age 70, my rate would be higher than the widow's benefit I'm getting. But I checked with the Social Security people and they said mine is still about $20 less than my husband's. They said there is no reason for me to file for my own benefits. But I'm wondering: Can you think of some reasons why I might want to switch to my own Social Security?

A: Actually, I can think of several reasons. First, there is always the chance the Social Security person you talked to was wrong about your benefit rate. You were told it was $20 less. But can you really be sure? To protect yourself, you should do what I always advise people to do: Insist on filing a claim for your own Social Security retirement. That way, you will get a formal (and legal) decision about your benefit rate, not simply a Social Security clerk's opinion. Assuming your claim is approved, and assuming it is still less than your widow's rate, you will get your own Social Security check, and you will get a smaller widow's check to take your rate back up to where it is now.

The second reason you should file for your own benefits has to do with the fact that you are still working. There is a chance your retirement rate will go up in the future because any additional earnings you have could increase your monthly Social Security checks if they are higher than the lowest years used in your initial benefit computation. If your own rate eventually does exceed your widow's benefit, your widow's check will stop and you'll just get your higher retirement benefits.

And the final reason you should file for your own retirement benefits would be to give you Medicare coverage (and a new Medicare card) under your own Social Security number. Even though you'll have the same coverage no matter what your Medicare number is, I've heard from many women over the years who just prefer having their own Social Security number on their Medicare card.

Q: I am 62 years old. I do not intend to file for my Social Security until age 70. But a neighbor told me that if I die before filing for Social Security, my wife would not be able to get widow's benefits on my record. Is this true?

A: It's false. Millions of men die every year before they ever had a chance to file for Social Security. And that fact certainly does not prevent their wives from qualifying for widow's benefits.

As a general rule, only one factor determines how much a woman will get in widow's benefits: her age at the time she becomes a widow and applies for Social Security widow's benefits.

So let's say your wife is 66 or older when you die. In that case, she will be due a widow's rate equal to 100 percent of your benefit. If she is 60 when you die (the youngest age she would qualify), then she'd get about 71 percent. If she's between 60 and 66, she'd get somewhere between 71 and 100 percent. And in any of those situations, she'd get benefits whether or not you were getting your own Social Security before you died.

Q: I recently learned that my ex-husband has died. I am 72 years old and have been getting my own Social Security for 10 years now. When I originally signed up for Social Security, I was told that I wasn't due anything from my ex because I was due more on my own. But now that he's died, I think I'm eligible for some of his Social Security. Do you think so? And if you do, how do I go about applying for them and what documents do I need?

A: Assuming you are not currently married (or you are married, but you got married after age 60), then it sounds like you are due divorced widow's benefits.

You should call Social Security at 800-772-1213. You can file a claim over the phone or set up an appointment to talk to someone at your local Social Security office. To claim divorced widow's benefits on his record, you will need to prove three things (and provide three pieces of documentation). First, you need to prove he is dead. So you will need a death certificate. Second, you will need to prove you were married to him. So that means a marriage certificate. And third, you will need to prove you were divorced. So dig out those divorce papers.

Q: I wanted to thank you for helping me get more money from Social Security. To refresh your memory, I am 68 years old. I was married to my husband for almost 30 years when we divorced. He remarried. I never did. He died in July. I called Social Security's hotline number to find out if I was due any widow's benefits on his record. I was told no, so I left it at that. But something about it nagged at me so I eventually sent you an email and explained my situation. You said it sounded like I was due benefits. This time, I went to my local Social Security office. The nice lady I talked to said his current wife was getting widow's benefits on his record so there was no money left for me. When I got home, I emailed you again and you said I was misinformed. You said his current wife and I were each due full widow's benefits. I went back to the office and spoke to the same woman. I showed her a copy of our emails. She still said I wasn't due anything. But she took the emails and went to the back of the office where I saw her talking to several other people. Long story short: She eventually came back to her desk and told me I was eligible and took my claim. Yesterday, I noticed I got a big bank deposit from Social Security with what I assume is retroactive widow's benefits.

A: Thanks for sharing your story. I'm obviously pleased that I was able to help you get your divorced widow's benefits. But as a former Social Security Administration employee, I was embarrassed to hear that at least two of my former colleagues gave you some bum information. So to all my other readers, please remember my mantra: Always insist on filing a claim for any benefits you think you might be due.

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

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