Occasionally, I like to take a break from the routine of covering the same old Social Security questions over and over again. A couple of months ago, I wrote a column in which I shared a funny story involving my first day on the job as a newly minted clerk for the Social Security Administration. I got so many emails from readers who enjoyed that column that I decided to write one more. This will give you a little glimpse into the world of a public servant.
The story I shared a couple of months ago happened in the first Social Security office I worked at in the small town of Litchfield, Illinois. After about a year in that office, I transferred to a huge inner-city office on the west side of Chicago. My job involved helping people file claims for Social Security benefits.
One morning, the office doors opened, and the usual flood of people filed into the office, including one older woman who was crying hysterically. She kept repeating the phrase: “Oh, my poor husband, he’s dead! He’s dead!” We all could see other customers in the waiting room trying to console her. Once the receptionist had checked everyone in, including the distraught woman, my fellow claims representatives and I walked up to the front desk to pick up our designated interviews. Sure enough, I was assigned to the sobbing senior. The interview slip the receptionist filled out said “wants to file for widows benefits,” so, of course, I had an idea why the woman was so sad.
We walked back to my desk in a far corner of the office. She cried all the way there. I offered her some tissues and asked her to sit down. “How can I help you?” I inquired, sort of knowing what the answer was going to be.
“Oh, my husband … He’s dead! He’s dead!”, she sobbed.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, ma’am,” I replied, with as much compassion as I could muster. “And are you here to file for widows benefits?”
“Yes, I am,” she stammered. And then, once again, she started sobbing: “Oh, my husband, he’s dead! He’s dead!”
I pulled out the widows application form, which began with some basic questions, such as her name, her husband’s name, and their Social Security numbers. It’s when we got to the next question that things got very interesting. That question asked for the date of death.
As gently as I could, I asked her when her husband died. “This morning,” she answered!
“I’m sorry,” I asked incredulously, “did you say your husband died just this morning?”
“Yes, he sure did,” she sobbed.
I managed to stumble out something like, “Oh, my goodness! What happened?”
And her next answer changed the course of the interview. She said, “I shot him!”
I thought back to the 12-week training class I had completed not too long before this interview. And I couldn’t recall anything about how to take a claim for widows benefits from a woman who had killed her husband. So, I went to my supervisor and said: “I think I have a murderer at my desk! What do I do?”
After some consultation with other officials in the office, my supervisor decided to move the woman to the manager’s office. The police were called. Interestingly, the manager also told me to come into the office and finish taking her claim for widows benefits.
And maybe it’s good they did. Because here is the rest of the story: As you might guess, there are laws on the books that say you cannot collect Social Security benefits on the account of someone you have murdered. Or, to be more precise, you cannot collect survivors benefits if you have been convicted of a felony in causing the death of the Social Security account holder.
But this woman was never convicted of such a crime. It turns out she had been the victim of terrible physical abuse from her husband for many years. On the morning of his death, he had been in the process of beating her up once again, and that led to the drastic action she took.
I don’t recall now if her case was dismissed or if she was convicted of a lesser charge that wasn’t a felony. But I did learn that, several years later (long after I had transferred to another Social Security office), the woman did eventually start getting widows benefits.
Occasionally, I’ve thought back to that case. Even though the woman obviously went through some terrible and traumatic times with her husband, I always found it interesting that one of the first things she thought of doing after she killed him was to head down to the Social Security office to file for widows benefits. We human beings sure can do some strange things sometimes, can’t we?
I have a little space left. So, let me go over the basic eligibility requirements for widows benefits.
You must be at least 60 years old (or at least age 50 if you are disabled). If you are under age 66, your eligibility is subject to the “earnings penalty” rules. Essentially, those rules say that if you are working and making much more than about $18,000 per year, you probably are not due any benefits.
Obviously, you must have been married to the deceased. Basically, Social Security follows state law when it comes to what constitutes a marriage. For example, if you have a common-law relationship, that may work for Social Security purposes, depending on where you live.
You cannot be currently married to someone else, although widows who remarry after age 60 can still qualify for benefits on a prior deceased husband’s account.
If you were divorced from the deceased, you could get benefits on his account if you were married to the guy for at least 10 years and you are not currently married to someone else.
And in all cases, if you are a working woman with your own Social Security account, you can exercise the “widows option,” which allows you to take reduced benefits on one account and switch to higher benefits on the other account later on.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.