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Homemakers & Social Security

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POSTED August 2, 2013 9:31 p.m.

Although most women today work and earn their own Social Security benefit, there still are quite a few women, especially those in their 50s and 60s, who have never worked outside the home. Or if they have, they either didn't work long enough to become "insured" for Social Security, or they worked just barely enough to earn a small retirement benefit on their own account. So they must rely on a husband's (or ex-husband's) Social Security record to qualify for full dependent's benefits, or partial benefits to supplement their own meager Social Security income. Today's questions concern such women.

Q: I am about to turn 62. I have been a homemaker all my life. My husband is 68 and took his Social Security at 66. I am considering applying for benefits on his record, but I have been told that if I take a wife's benefit at age 62 that it will reduce my future widow's benefits. Is this true?

A: No, it is not true. That fact that you might take a reduced dependent wife's benefit on your husband's Social Security account has no impact on the amount of any future widow's benefits you might be due.

The only thing that determines what percentage of your husband's Social Security benefit you will get as a widow is your age when you claim survivor benefits. If you are 66 or older, you will get 100 percent of your husband's rate. If you are under that age when you become a widow, you will get a reduced rate, the reduction depending on your age.

Q: I am 62 and have not worked very much in my life. I am due about $500 per month on my own record. My husband who is 68 has a much higher benefit. He gets $2,400 per month. Can I take my own $500 benefit now and at age 66, switch to half of his?

A: No you can't. If you file for Social Security before age 66, you must file for any and all benefits you are due at the same time. So assuming you sign up for Social Security at age 62, you will get your own $500 rate, and you will get that benefit supplemented up to about 30 percent of your husband's payment. (30 percent is what a spouse gets at age 62.) In other words, you will get a spousal supplement of about $220.

Q: I am trying to maximize my wife's potential widow's benefit. I am 66 and my wife is 62. She has never worked outside the home. I was planning to delay taking my Social Security benefits until age 70 in order to get my full retirement benefit plus a 32 percent delayed retirement bonus. I also understand that my wife's widow's rate will include that bonus. But someone at the Social Security office told me that if I die before age 70 without ever signing up for Social Security, that my wife will not get any bonus. She will simply get my age-66 rate. They told me the only way I can guarantee my wife gets the bonus is by filing for benefits at 66 and then immediately suspending those payments. Is this true?

A: Either you were misinformed, or you misunderstood what the Social Security representative was trying to tell you. You do not have to file and suspend in order to insure that your wife gets any delayed retirement credits added to her widow's rate if you die before you file at age 70. For example, if you die at age 69, she will get your full age 66 retirement benefit AND she will get about a 24 percent delayed retirement credit added to her widow's check. In other words, her widow's payment will be 124 percent of your full retirement rate.

There is one advantage to going the file and suspend route, however. It's the same advantage I've explained to retiree's many times in this column. It gives you an option if you change your mind before age 70. Here is an example.

Bill plans to wait until 70 to claim his Social Security. But then Bill has a heart attack at age 68 and decides he no longer wants to wait until age 70 to start his Social Security. So he files for Social Security at age 68. He would get his full age 66 rate, plus a delayed retirement bonus of about 16 percent. But had he filed and suspended at age 66, he would have had one more option. He could forego the 16 percent bonus and instead take 24 months worth of back pay benefits to age 66.

But if Bill does take the back pay, his wife's eventual widow's benefit would be based on his age 66 rate.


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