A Woman’s Guide to Social Security, Continued

By Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA's public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers.
November 12, 2021 Updated: November 12, 2021

In last week’s column, I presented a brief overview of the Social Security rules that apply to women. Today’s column has some common questions that I get from women that will help clarify those rules.

Q: Every woman I know is getting half of her husband’s Social Security. But I’m getting nowhere near that. Why don’t I get half?

A: Although each questioner will phrase her inquiry differently, this is probably the most common question a woman will ask me.

A woman will get half of her husband’s Social Security (assuming it is more than her own retirement benefit) if she waits until her full retirement age to claim spousal benefits. My guess is that you started your benefits before then. If you took them at age 62, for example, you should be getting about one-third of your husband’s Social Security.

And frankly, I doubt if “every woman (you) know” is getting half of her husband’s Social Security. Statistics show the majority of women get their own retirement benefit. And those eligible for benefits as a wife usually start taking benefits before their full retirement age, which means most women are getting less than the 50 percent spousal rate.

And if some form of “Why don’t I get half my husband’s Social Security?” is the most common question I get, here is the second most common.

Q: I just turned 62. My 68-year-old husband is already getting his benefits. He says I should take reduced spousal benefits on his record now and then at my full retirement age, switch to 100 percent of my own Social Security. How do I go about doing that?

A: You can’t do that. The rules say you must always file for your own Social Security benefits first. Once you’ve done that, then you can see if you might be due any extra spousal benefits on your husband’s record. Or to answer your question a different way, you generally can’t take reduced benefits on one record while holding off to get higher benefits on another record later on.

This next question is a bit of a twist on this scenario.

Q: I am about to turn 62. My husband also is 62. I want to file for my own Social Security now. My husband, who was the much higher wage earner, plans to wait until he is 67 to file for his. If I file for my own now, can I later switch to higher spousal benefits on his record?

A: Yes, you can do that. The difference between your case and the case of the woman who asked the previous question is that her husband is already getting benefits, while your husband will be filing for benefits in the future. So that woman must file for all benefits she is due (her own and spousal benefits) at the same time. But in your case, at the time you will be filing for your Social Security your husband won’t be on the beneficiary rolls, so you can only file for your own benefits. But once he applies for Social Security, you can see if you will get anything extra on his record.

And this next question adds yet another twist to the story.

Q: My husband recently filed for his Social Security at age 67. I am turning 62. You answered my email a few weeks ago telling me that I could not file for my husband’s benefit now and let my benefit continue to grow by filing for it later. But I have a good friend who did just that. She took her deceased husband’s benefits at 66, and at 70, she plans to switch to 132 percent of her own Social Security. What gives?

A: What gives is that she is a widow, and you are not. Widows (and widowers) are the only Social Security beneficiaries who can ignore the “you must file for all benefits at the same time” rule. They can start out getting reduced benefits on one record and later switch to higher benefits on another record.

Q: My husband took benefits when he was 70. He gets $3,800 per month. I was 66 when he filed for benefits. I should be getting half of his, or $1,900. But I only get $1,450. Can you explain what went wrong?

A: Nothing went wrong. Benefits payable to a wife are always based on the husband’s full retirement age rate, not the augmented benefits he is getting because he delayed starting his Social Security until he was 70. His FRA rate must be in the $2,900 range, which is why you are getting $1,450.

For future planning purposes, you should know that a widow’s benefit is always based on the husband’s full rate, including any extra benefits he got for starting his Social Security later. So, if your husband dies before you do, you will start getting his full age 70 rate in the form of widow’s benefits.

Q: We have a bit of a different situation from the norm. I always earned more money than my husband, so now I get a higher Social Security benefit than he receives. Someone told me that if I die first, he won’t get anything extra from my account because only women can get widow’s benefits. Is this true?

A: Well, technically it’s true that only women get “widow’s” benefits. But a man, including your husband, would certainly be entitled to “widower’s” benefits. The eligibility rules for widows and widowers are the same. So, if you die first, your husband will keep getting his own retirement benefit. Then he will get the difference between your rate and his rate in the form of widower’s benefits added to his Social Security check.

Tom Margenau
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA's public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers.