Social Security Benefits for Widows

Social Security Benefits for Widows
Tom Margenau

I've saved up some questions that are either from widows or from husbands or wives wondering about future widow's benefits. Here are some of them.

Q: I want to make sure my wife gets the highest widow's benefits possible after I'm gone. How do I do that?

A: If that's your only goal with respect to claiming your own Social Security benefits, then the answer is really rather simple: Wait as long as possible to sign up for your retirement benefits.

While you are alive, any spousal benefits your wife might be due are based on your full retirement age benefit amount. But after you're gone, her widow's rate will be based on whatever benefit rate you were getting at the time of your death. So, for example, if you waited until age 70 to start your Social Security, meaning you would be getting about 130% of your FRA benefit, your wife will also get that 130% rate in the form of widow's benefits (assuming she is over her FRA when you die).

Q: I am 72. My husband is 82. I get my own Social Security. It is $2,850 per month. And he gets his own benefit. It's $3,280. When he dies, will I get my own benefit and his? Or how does that work?

A: The law says when you are due two Social Security benefits, you don't get them both. You only get the one that pays the higher rate. Or to be more precise, you are generally always paid your own benefit first. And then that is supplemented with an amount to take your total benefits up to whatever you might be due on your husband's record.

So, if he dies first, you'll keep getting your $2,850. And then you'll get $430 in widow's benefits to take you up to his $3,280 rate.

Q: I am 70 years old, and I am working part time. But throughout our 40-year marriage, I was a stay-at-home mom for much of the time. My husband, who was a doctor, died four years ago. I get widow's benefits and not my own. However, every year I get a letter telling me my own retirement benefit went up, but my check never increases. Can you explain this?

A: As I explained in the prior answer, I'm sure that on the Social Security Administration's books, you are getting your own small Social Security benefit that is supplemented with higher widow's benefits. So, as you work, your own benefit gradually increases every year. But it will probably never reach the point where it exceeds your widow's rate, and that's why nothing changes.

Let me further explain this with an example. Let's say your own Social Security retirement benefit is $800 per month, and that your widow's benefit is $3,400 per month. So, on the SSA's books, you are getting your own $800, and you are getting $2,600 in widow's benefits to take you up to his $3,400 level.

And now let's say your earnings increase your own retirement benefit to $830 per month. That means on paper, your widow's rate goes down to $2,570 because you are still due a total of $3,400 per month.

Q: My husband and I are both in our late 70s. We were both real estate agents most of our lives. I'm still in the business. Because of poor health, my husband isn't. My Social Security is $2,990. He gets $2,540. If he dies, what will I get in widow's benefits?

A: I'm sorry, but you won't get anything -- other than the one-time little death benefit of $255. To repeat what I pointed out in prior answers, when you are potentially due two benefits, you only get the one that pays the higher rate. Your own benefit is more than your potential widow's benefit. So that's all you'll get.

On the other hand, if you should die first, he would get $450 in widower's benefits to take his $2,540 retirement rate up to your $2,990 level.

Q: My husband and I are in our late 60s. I am a retired teacher. I never paid into Social Security; my teacher's pension is about $4,000 per month. My husband's job did pay into Social Security, and he gets $3,100 in retirement benefits. I just learned that when he dies, I won't get a nickel in widow's benefits because of something called the government pension offset. I think this is totally unfair!

A: It's really not unfair at all. Consider the woman who asked the prior question. She will never get any widow's benefits because her own Social Security benefit exceeds her potential widow's rate. The government pension offset law merely says your teacher's pension will be treated just like a Social Security retirement pension and it will offset any widow's benefits you might be due from Social Security.

And actually, that GPO law cuts you a deal. It says only two-thirds of your teacher's pension will be used to offset your widow's benefits. In your case, that means only $2,640 of your $4,000 pension will be counted. So, if your husband dies, you will still get $460 in widow's benefits ($3,100 minus $2,640 equals $460). If you ask me, it's unfair that you would get $460 in widow's benefit and the woman who gets a Social Security retirement pension and not a teacher's pension won't get a dime!

Q: My wife and I both took our Social Security at 62. We are now in our 80s. My benefit is much higher than hers. If I die first, will she start getting what I'm getting?

A: In your situation, she'll actually get a little bit more. Because you took benefits at 62, that means you are getting a reduced retirement benefit that equals 75% of your full retirement age rate. But there is a law that says a woman of your wife's age is guaranteed a widow's rate of 82% of your full rate. So, she'll get that extra 7% added to her widow's benefits after you die.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has a book with all the answers. It's called "Social Security -- Simple and Smart." You can find the book at or look for it on Amazon or other book outlets. 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