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Spousal Benefit Clarifications

Q. I think you have been misleading many women in your column. Let's say a woman is getting her own retirement benefits. She also has a husband who is getting a higher benefit on his account. If he dies, she will start getting the higher widow's rate. You have been telling women that they continue to receive their own benefit and that it is supplemented with some widow's benefits to take her up to whatever amount her husband was getting. Why the ruse? Why tell her she's getting benefits from two accounts? She's just getting the higher widow's rate. Let me put that another way. Had she never worked and earned her own Social Security check, she'd still be getting the same widow's payment.

A. Well, your last point is certainly valid, and I understand the overall message of your email. However, I still think I'm correct in explaining widow's benefits the way I do. Let's follow this example.

Mary worked on and off during her life, taking time off to raise a family. She is now 68 and getting $900 per month in retirement benefits. Her husband, Stan, is 72 and is getting $2,100 per month from Social Security. If Stan dies, Mary will start getting $2,100 per month in total monthly benefits. But, according to Social Security's records, she is being paid $900 off of her account and $1,200 from her husband's record. It may be just an internal bookkeeping practice on the part of the Social Security Administration, but I still am correct in saying that she is getting benefits from two different accounts. And frankly, I think all Mary is concerned about is that a check for $2,100 shows up in her bank account every month.

Q. In a recent column, you talked about a husband who was getting $2,000 per month and a wife who was getting her own retirement benefit of $900, and she was also getting $100 in extra spousal benefits. In other words, her benefit was supplemented up to half of his rate. Well, I happen to be getting about the same Social Security benefit as your example (actually $1,950 per month). And my wife gets $850 on her own Social Security. However, she doesn't get a nickel from my account. Shouldn't she be getting supplemented up to half of mine, or an extra $125 in wife's benefits? Should I talk to my local Social Security people about this?

A. Whenever I mention spousal benefits in this column, I get many emails similar to this one. The key difference, between the examples I used in the prior column and the situation presented by those emailing me, almost always comes down to the age at which the spouse signed up for Social Security.

In my example, the wife waited until age 66 to claim her benefits. At that age, a spouse can get up to one-half of her husband's Social Security. But the majority of women sign up for Social Security before age 66, many of them at age 62. In that case, the spousal rate goes way down — to about 30 percent.

The person who sent this email didn't give me any ages, but I will bet his wife was well below age 66 when she started getting Social Security benefits. That's why she isn't getting supplemented up to half of her husband's rate.

Q. I didn't take my Social Security until age 70. So I am getting my full benefit plus the delayed retirement bonus — $2,800 per month. My wife has never worked outside the home. She just turned 66 and applied for spousal benefits on my account. I expected she would get half of my rate, or $1,400 monthly. But she is only getting $1,080. Can you tell me what went wrong?

A. Nothing went wrong. The rules say a spouse does not share in the delayed retirement bonus. Therefore her benefit is based on your rate at age 66, which must be about $2,160. (Half of that is the $1,080 that your wife is receiving.)

I'm usually pretty good at explaining the rationale behind various Social Security laws. But this is one that has always escaped me. I'm really not sure why your spouse cannot be supplemented up to your full benefit amount, including the bonus.

One bit of good news: when you die, your wife's widow's rate will be 100 percent of your entire benefit, including the bonus payment. Of course the bad news is that you have to die to make that happen!

Q. Why do you call Social Security payments a "benefit?" It is neither a benefit nor a government handout. It is something I worked for all my life. The government isn't giving me a "benefit," they are just paying back money to me that is rightfully mine.

A. I hear where you are coming from. It really is just a matter of semantics, in this case, legal semantics. "Benefits" is simply a term used in Social Security law. And per the law, people who receive monthly payments have always been called "Social Security beneficiaries." These are not terms meant to imply that retired Social Security taxpayers are getting handouts from the government. I suppose the terms grow out of the fact that Social Security is a form of social insurance, and you and about 50 million other people are "beneficiaries" of this insurance program.