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We just don’t want widows “living in sin!”

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POSTED February 8, 2013 8:52 p.m.

Q: I've been rereading some of your past articles online. You usually explain Social Security rules pretty well. But there is one situation I am having trouble with. A 62-year-old woman who is married to a slightly younger man wrote to ask if she could get benefits from her older ex-husband's Social Security record. You said no. You went on to explain that as long as she was married to husband number two, she can't get benefits from husband number one. But in another column, a 63-year-old woman who was getting widow's benefits asked if she could continue receiving those benefits if she marries another man. And you answered that as long as she remarried after the age of 60, she could continue to receive her deceased husband's benefits. Isn't this a contradiction of your first answer?

A: My answers to both women are correct. But you are right; one answer does contradict the other. And the contradiction grows out of this country's conservative moral values. We just don't want nice old ladies "living in sin!" I'll explain.

Social Security has always had a general rule that says if you are married to one man, you can only get his Social Security. You can't get a prior husband's benefits if you are married to another guy.

And if you think of it, the law makes sense. Remember, we are talking about spousal benefits — benefits to a wife or widow, or to a divorced wife or widow. And for Social Security purposes, spousal benefits imply "dependency." In other words, you only qualify for a wife or widow's benefit if you were dependent on your husband or ex-husband. So if a woman marries another man, the law then assumes she is now dependent on that new husband. Because she is no longer dependent on her prior husband, why should she get dependent Social Security spousal benefits on his account?

(Before I go on here, I must make it very clear that we are talking only about dependent spousal benefits a woman might be due from her husband or ex-husband. If a woman has worked and earned her own Social Security benefit, nothing regarding her marital status prevents her from collecting that benefit.)

But now back to the issue of spousal benefits. Again, the general rule, a rule that makes perfect sense, has always said that you can't get benefits from a prior husband as long as you are married to a different husband.

But back in the '70s, stories started to appear in the press about women forced to "live in sin" by their government! Those stories always involved elderly women getting Social Security widow's benefits that eventually found another man and wanted to start a new life with him. But if she married him, she would lose her monthly widow's payment from her first husband. So they would simply start living together. And conservative religious people in this country went nuts! My gosh — little old ladies were "shacking up" with lonely old men, and we just couldn't have that!

They demanded change, and they eventually got it. Congress felt the political heat and rewrote the law. Ever since then, the rules have said that if a woman is getting widow's benefits from a prior husband, she can remarry after the age of 60 and continue to get Social Security benefits from her first husband. She is potentially due benefits from her second husband, too. But because a widow's rate — up to 100 percent — is much higher than the rate paid to a current wife — only up to 50 percent — a woman usually gets much higher benefits from her deceased husband's account than she would be due from her current husband.

Oh, and if husband number two dies, the twice-widowed woman can pick and choose. She would get benefits from whichever husband had the more generous Social Security account.

Q: I am about to turn 66. I started getting widow's benefits at age 60. I was told at that time that my own Social Security retirement rate was much less than my deceased husband's benefit. But now that I am 66, I am wondering if my own benefit is higher. Will they automatically switch me over if it is? Or should I wait until age 70 when I understand I can get the maximum rate?

A: They will not automatically switch you from widow's benefits to retirement benefits. This is something you will have to initiate by contacting your local Social Security office or by calling them at 800-772-1213.

You can switch over to your own retirement rate only if it is higher than your widow's benefit. Now that you are 66, you should check with Social Security to find out what your own retirement benefit is. If it (your age 66 rate) is still less than your widow's payment, there is nothing to switch to — for now. The only thing you can do is wait until age 70 to find out if by then your own Social Security benefit (which would come with a 32 percent bonus at that age) is finally higher than your widow's rate. If even at age 70, your own rate is still less than your widow's benefit, then you will simply continue to get widow's benefits for the rest of your life.

If you check with Social Security and find that your age 66 rate is already higher than your widow's benefit, then you have two choices. You can either switch to that higher benefit on your own record now. Or you can wait until age 70 and switch to an even higher benefit (with that 32 percent bonus).


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