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Cruise ship stories all wet
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Q: I am a married 64-year-old woman. I started getting my Social Security at age 62. I was told at the time that I was not eligible for any of my husband's Social Security. But we were just on a cruise and an older woman told me that she took retirement benefits at 62 and was also able to get half of her husband's Social Security. Why don't I get half of my husband's benefits?

A: First of all, don't believe most things you hear about Social Security from senior citizens on cruise ships. I've been on more than a few cruises, and I've heard so many old folks spreading false tales about Social Security. (I usually don't let on that I am a Social Security expert until after I hear their fanciful fables. Then I try to set them straight, but they frequently don't believe me!)

I can guarantee you that your fellow cruise passenger did not get her own reduced retirement benefit AND half of her husband's Social Security, as she apparently told you. A woman can get her own benefit SUPPLEMENTED up to a percentage of her husband's rate, but she doesn't get both benefits.

In other words, you are potentially due a percentage of your husband's Social Security, to the extent that it exceeds your own benefit. But what the percentage is depends on when you and your spouse filed for Social Security. If he was getting Social Security when you turned 62 and filed for your own benefits, then you are only eligible to have your payment supplemented up to about 30 percent of his. But if he filed for benefits later, the percentage you get depends on how old you were when he filed. If, for example, you were 64 when he filed, then you might be due up to about 40 percent or so. Had you been 66 or older when he filed, your benefit could have been supplemented up to half of his rate.

My guess is that like most working women, you won't get any of your husband's Social Security until he dies (because the widow's supplement is up to 100 percent). The only way you will know for sure is to contact your local Social Security office.

One final point: Had you waited until 66 to file, you would have had other options. For example, you could have taken just a 50 percent spousal benefit until age 70, at which point you could switch to your own retirement rate and get a delayed retirement filing bonus. That procedure, called the restricted application policy, is a topic I've discussed many times in past columns.

Q. I just came back from a cruise through the Caribbean. Each night, I sat at a dinner table with a group of older widows like myself. As you might guess, Social Security was a frequent topic. One woman said she was getting full widow's benefits and full retirement benefits. No one else was getting that. Another woman said she was receiving a state retirement pension and couldn't get any of her deceased husband's Social Security. A third woman said that when her husband died, she never got the burial benefit, while all the rest of us did. And finally, I explained to my dinner companions that when my husband died, I was given the option of taking my widow's pension first, and then later switching to my own retirement benefits when I was 66. The other women said this option was never offered to them. Can you comment on this?

A. Obviously, I don't know any of the facts about each of your tablemate's Social Security affairs other than what you told me. But here are my guesses.

The first woman was either telling a big fib, or she really didn't know what she was getting from Social Security. The second woman was a retired teacher. The third woman was divorced and was probably talking about death benefits from her ex-husband. And finally, my hunch is your husband died when you were in your early 60s, while the other women lost their husbands later in life. Now let me go over each of these situations one by one.

The first woman simply didn't know what she was talking about. No one can get two full Social Security benefits. My hunch is that she was getting her own retirement benefit when her husband died (probably sometime after she was 66 years old). Then her own Social Security check would have been supplemented up to whatever her husband was getting at the time he died.

I'm guessing the second woman was a teacher who taught in a state where educators do not pay into the Social Security system. Just as a Social Security retirement benefit offsets any potential widow's benefits, a teacher's retirement pension also offsets any widow's benefits she might be due from her husband's Social Security record. Actually, teachers are given a bit of a break. While an entire Social Security retirement pension is used to offset any widow's benefits; only two-thirds of a teacher's pension is applied as an offset.

The third woman said she didn't get the death benefit from her husband's account when he died. I'm guessing they were separated or divorced or otherwise living apart; because the rules say the one time death payment can be doled out only to a spouse who was living with the deceased at the time of death.

And that leaves you. A woman who has worked and has her own Social Security account and then becomes a widow before age 66 has some options. She can take reduced benefits on one Social Security account (her own or her husband's) and then at age 66, or possibly even 70, switch to higher benefits on the other account. Which benefit she takes first depends entirely on the money amounts involved.