Benefits for Widows

December 10, 2020 Updated: December 15, 2020

I get a lot of emails from women who have questions about the widows benefits they are already getting. Or they have questions about the widows benefits they think they will be getting in the future. I’ve saved up a few of those and will answer them in today’s column.

Q: I am 70 years old. My husband has stage-four lung cancer. He is 72. He waited until he was 70 to start his benefits. He is getting $3,366 per month. I only worked on and off during our marriage, so my own benefit is small. And I took reduced retirement at age 62. I get $900 per month. I called Social Security to find out what I would get when my husband dies. The agent told me that because I took reduced retirement benefits, my widows benefit also would be reduced. She said she couldn’t give me an exact number, but figured I would get about $2,000 per month. I was a little uncomfortable with that information. So, I called again and talked to a different representative. This guy told me that I would get a full 100 percent widows benefit, but it would be 100 percent of my husband’s full retirement rate, not his age-70 rate. He said I would keep my own $900 and get about $1,625 in widows benefits to take me up to my husband’s full retirement rate of $2,525. Does that sound right to you?

A: Gosh, did you get some bum advice! Both Social Security representatives you talked to were wrong. When your husband dies, you are going to start getting $3,366 per month in combined widows and retirement benefits. I can help you understand this by dealing with the answers you got from the SSA reps.

The rep who told you that the reduction you took in your own benefits carries over to your potential widows benefits was just plain wrong. Your widows rate is essentially based on one thing only: your age when your husband dies. Because you are 70 (well above full retirement age), you are due a 100 percent widows rate.

And the guy who said that your widows rate is based on your husband’s full retirement benefit and not his augmented age-70 benefit was also wrong. It is true that wives do not share in those “delayed retirement credits” added to your husband’s Social Security check. But widows do.

So, your widows benefit is based on your husband’s full benefit at the time of death, including any delayed retirement credits he earned. That is why you will get $3,366 in combined benefits (your own $900 and $2,486 in widows benefits).

Q: My husband is 84, and he is dying. I am 81. He took benefits at 62. He is getting $1,591. I am getting my own smaller retirement benefit. It is $1,205. Someone told me that when he dies, I will start getting the difference between his benefit and mine in the form of widows benefits. In other words, I will get an extra $386. Is that right?

A: Actually, you will get a little more than that. You said your husband took benefits at 62. That means he is getting 75 percent of his full-retirement-age rate. But there is a rule that says a widow of your age is due 82 percent of your husband’s full retirement rate. If my little desk calculator is right, I figure his FRA rate is $2,122. And 82 percent of that is $1,740. So when your husband dies, you will keep getting your own $1,205 retirement check. And then you will get an extra $535 in widows benefits to take you up to the $1,740 level.

“BUT WAIT A MINUTE!” I can hear some of you saying. “In the first answer, you said a widow over full retirement age was due 100 percent of her husband’s benefit. And in the second answer, another widow over full retirement age was due only 82 percent. What gives?”

Here is the answer. Actually, they are both getting 100 percent. But it is 100 percent of what the guy was getting at the time of death. To further clarify, you have to remember this rule. If a woman took reduced retirement benefits, that reduction does not carry over to what she gets as a widow. But the reverse of that is not true. If the husband took reduced retirement benefits, that reduction he took does carry over to any widows benefits his wife will get.

So, in effect, both widows are getting a 100 percent rate. It’s just that the first one is getting 100 percent of her husband’s full benefit. And the second one is getting 100 percent of her husband’s reduced benefit (which, in her case, ends up at 82 percent of his full retirement rate.) I hope that makes sense!

Q: I’m confused. I am getting a combination of my own benefits and widows benefits. I’m 68 and still working. Every year, I get a Social Security letter telling me my own benefit is going up, but that my widows benefit is going down. I end up with the same amount. What’s wrong with this picture?

A: I can understand why that seems confusing. So, let me explain what is going on. You didn’t give me any amounts, but let’s say your own retirement benefit is $1,200 and your widows benefit is $2,000. When you are due two benefits, you don’t get both. You get the one that pays the higher rate. So, you are getting a check for $2,000 from Social Security each month. But there is a rule that says you must always be paid your own benefit first. So, on the SSA’s books, you are actually getting your own $1,200, and then you are getting $800 in widows benefits to take you up to the $2,000 rate you are due. The money you are making at your job, and the Social Security taxes you are paying, increase your own retirement benefit each year but not your widows benefit (which was based on your husband’s earnings). So, let’s say that next year, your own retirement benefit goes up from $1,200 to $1,250. But you are still due $2,000 in widows benefits. So, next year, you will get $1,250 in retirement benefits and $750 in widows benefits. In other words, on paper, your own benefit went up, and your widows benefit went down. But again, you are still getting your full widows rate.

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. If you have a Social Security question, contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net