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A few questions from widows
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Q. I am a 54-year-old widow. My husband died a couple years ago. My children are all grown. I am having a hard time making ends meet, and so I am very puzzled as to why I can't get widow's benefits now. Why do only older women get widow's benefits? I have just as many bills and problems as they do. What could possibly be the justification for denying me my husband's benefits just because I'm not yet a senior citizen?

A. The law generally says a woman can get widow's benefits beginning at age 60. When Congress wrote that law, which by the way was back in 1935, they assumed that a woman under the age of 60 ought to be able to work and support herself. I know my mother was a widow at the age of 50 and did just that — she worked until she was 65 years old.

But Congress recognized a couple of situations in which a widow under 60 might not be able to work — if she was disabled or if she had minor kids. So that's why they provided two exceptions to the age 60 law. They said a widow can get benefits as early as the age of 50 if she is severely disabled. And they said a woman with minor children in her care ought to be able to get widow's benefits at any age. Those same exceptions still apply today.

But you are not disabled. And you don't have little kids at home. I know the job market can be tough, but again, the law assumes you should be able to support yourself at least until you reach age 60.

Q. My husband died four months ago. They did switch me from the wife's benefit I was getting to widow's benefits. But I never received the $255 death benefit. For a month or so after he died, it seemed they were having trouble figuring out my correct widow's payment. I believe it was a higher rate for a month or so, but for the past couple months, it has leveled off to what my husband was getting when he died. I don't remember ever applying for that burial benefit. Should I contact someone at the Social Security office about this? I hope you don't think my question is too naive. I spent my entire adult life as a wife and homemaker, and my husband handled all the finances, so I really don't understand how Social Security works.

A. Obviously, I don't know all the facts about your case. So you should talk to someone at your Social Security office to verify this. But here is what I think happened.

You said you were getting Social Security checks as a wife on your husband's record before he died. In those kinds of situations, the Social Security office just automatically switches you from wife's benefits to widow's benefits as soon as they learn of your husband's death (which they probably did by checking the computer records of the state or county bureau of vital statistics).

As part of that process, they also automatically send you the $255 death benefit. It isn't necessarily a separate check. You said that you received a higher rate before your benefits leveled off. So I'm pretty sure that $255 one-time death payment was just included along with your first widow's payment.

Again, you can check with your Social Security office to make sure. Or you can simply call them at 800-772-1213.

Q. After my husband died, I received the $255 burial benefit. But I would like to know how the government expected me to bury my husband for only $255!

A. To be frank, they didn't expect you to bury your husband for $255. As I've explained before in this column, that little token death payment was never meant to be a "burial benefit."

It started its life as a one-time payment about 75 years ago, in the very earliest days of the Social Security program. At that time, there were many people who died without having accrued sufficient work credits, sometimes called "quarters of coverage," for their families to qualify for any survivor's benefits. Social Security planners didn't want these people to go away empty handed, so family members of the deceased would get a little token reimbursement from the government. It was initially set at three and one-half percent of the Social Security taxes the deceased had paid into the program.

As always happens with government programs, people who weren't getting what came to be mistakenly known as the "burial benefit" complained that they were being cheated. These would be the family members of someone who died "fully insured," meaning they were widows and/or minor children who already qualified for monthly benefits.

As I explained above, the one-time death benefit was meant to be a compensation for folks whose loved one died before paying sufficient taxes into the system. But Congress knuckled under the pressure and decided to pay a one-time death benefit (NOT a "burial benefit") in almost all cases.

That payment was initially set at six times the deceased's monthly retirement rate. In 1954, the law was amended to limit the payment to "six times the monthly retirement rate but not more than $255." In 1973, they changed the wording of the law to simply say the payment would be a flat $255. Finally, in 1983 they amended the law to say the death benefit could only be paid to a widow or widower.

And that's where the one-time death benefit has been ever since. It's essentially a meaningless payment. BUT, it is an incredibly popular little benefit. Anytime a member of Congress even thinks of introducing a bill to eliminate the token payment, he or she is immediately flooded with letters from senior citizen groups, and the bill is quickly withdrawn!