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Bureaucracy inaction

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POSTED May 4, 2012 9:22 p.m.

Q: I want to apply for Social Security benefits on my ex-husband's record. I called Social Security to ask how to do this. The lady on the phone told me they can't even talk to me until I have original copies of the marriage certificate and divorce papers. I have the divorce papers but don't have the marriage records. When I called the office of the county where we were married, the people there said they can't send the original, only a copy. I told them that Social Security wants the original. The county employee told me, "That's not my problem!" I'm worried I never will be able to get Social Security benefits. What am I supposed to do?

A: Don't you just love the bureaucracy? It almost makes me embarrassed to think I was once a government employee. I said "almost" because I know — or at least I sure hope — that there are way more helpful government employees than the two lazy bumpkins you ran into.

The first thing you can do is relax. You will be able to get the marriage documents you need, and you will be able to file for Social Security benefits on your ex-husband's record. Just reverse the order.

The second thing you need to do is go back to your local Social Security office and file a claim for benefits. You do NOT need the documents in question to start the process. The Social Security representative you talked to the first time should have offered you the opportunity to apply for divorced wife's benefits, and then she should have said, "And now let's help you get the marriage certificate." And then she should have given you the address, phone number and/or website for the bureau of vital statistics in the county where you were married.

The third thing you need to do is go back to the county office and get a "certified copy" of your original marriage record. That's what the Social Security Administration needs. A "certified copy" is essentially a photocopy or facsimile of the original document, usually with a raised seal signed by some official from the office that maintains the records.

Q: In one of your recent columns, you explained that a woman usually cannot file for reduced benefits on her own Social Security record and expect to switch to full spousal benefits on her husband's record at age 66. But what if she becomes a widow? Here is my situation. I just recently started taking my Social Security at age 62. I'm getting $1,200 per month. My husband, who is five years older than I am, started taking his Social Security at age 66. He is getting $2,300 per month. When he dies, will I be able to switch to widow's benefits on his record?

A: Yes, you will. In the column you referred to, I was so intent on pointing out that if you take reduced benefits on one Social Security record, you generally must file simultaneously for benefits on any other account you might be due benefits. But I should have made it clearer that if one of the spouses dies, the rules change.

As a general rule, the only deciding factor that determines how much you get on your husband's record after he dies is how old you are when you become a widow. Assuming you are 66 or older when that happens, you will start getting whatever he was getting. Or, to be more precise, you will continue to get your own Social Security check, and it will be supplemented with widow's benefits so that your total monthly payment equals his Social Security amount.

Q: In the past several weeks in your columns, you have made many references to a woman's getting benefits on their husband's Social Security account — whether it be a young woman getting monthly checks from her retired husband's record because she is caring for his minor children or an older woman getting widow's benefits. But you never talk about a man's getting any benefits from his wife's Social Security. This just doesn't seem fair. What about guys like me? Why can't we get Social Security from our wives?

A: Actually, Social Security law is very fair. Dependent fathers, husbands and widowers can get Social Security benefits just as dependent mothers, wives and widows do. The reason you don't see such benefits often is society hasn't been fair.

Everyone knows the story. Men traditionally have made more money than women. Also, women tend to spend more years out of the paid labor force staying home to care for children. Because Social Security benefits are tied directly to the amount of a person's earnings and to the number of years a person has worked and paid Social Security taxes, those are the two main reasons men get higher monthly retirement benefits from Social Security than women do.

You can claim a dependent's benefit from your spouse only if you are getting a significantly lower Social Security benefit than your spouse is receiving. That's why there are millions of women getting wife's and widow's benefits but only a relative handful of men getting husband's and widower's benefits.

But apparently, times are changing. I just read a report that said that in the 20- and 30-something age group, women are now out-earning men. So perhaps three or four decades from now, we'll see more men than women getting spousal benefits.

 

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