Q. I am a 71-year-old widow. My husband recently died, and I was absolutely shocked to learn that I will not qualify for any of his Social Security. The Social Security office told me that my own benefit was so much higher than his that I will just get my own retirement payments and nothing else. I happened to have had a better-paying job than my husband did, so that's why I qualify for a higher payment than he would have received. My husband died at the age of 61. He paid Social Security taxes for almost 40 years. It is so maddening to know that not only did he never get a chance to get any Social Security but also I won't get any widow's benefits either. What happens to all the money he put into the system? And who is responsible for the dumb law that prevents me from getting what is rightfully mine?
A. I'm sorry for your loss. And I can sympathize with your frustrations about not qualifying for widow's benefits. I'm going to explain to you why the law is the way it is. But I have a hunch no matter what I say, you won't be satisfied.
You have to understand that Social Security was never set up to work like a regular life insurance program. People can buy life insurance if they want. And of course, many people do. I certainly hope you and your husband did.
Social Security was enacted in 1935 primarily as a retirement program. And as I think most people understand, it was meant to be merely one part of a retiree's nest egg. You may have heard of the "three legged stool" analogy with respect to what a worker should plan to count on in retirement. One leg is any pension or 401(k) income. The second leg is savings or investments. And the third leg is Social Security.
Anyway, that was Social Security's original intent in 1935. But even before the first regular monthly checks were sent out in 1940, Congress realized that provisions needed to be made for a taxpayer's dependents. So they amended the original Social Security law to add benefits for dependent spouses and widows — and minor children.
That word "dependent" is key. The law said a spouse would get benefits on her husband's Social Security record if she was financially dependent on her husband. (By the way, I'm not trying to be sexist by referring only to women getting spousal benefits. I'm just being realistic. Even today, about 90 percent of all spousal benefits go to women.)
Back in the 1930s when these laws were passed, most men worked and most women stayed home. So when the husband retired, he got Social Security retirement benefits, and his wife got a spousal benefit — up to one half of his rate. And when he died, the woman started getting widow's benefits — up to 100 percent of his rate.
But as time went on, more and more women left the home and joined the paid labor force. So they started paying Social Security taxes and earning their own Social Security benefits. In other words, they were no longer totally financially dependent on their husband's income while he was working. And in their senior years, they were no longer totally dependent on the husband's Social Security. After all, they were now getting their own Social Security check.
It wouldn't make sense to pay a woman a full dependent's benefit if she were getting her own retirement benefit. But many women still qualify for some dependent spousal payments, especially if their own Social Security check is low.
Here is a simple example. Bill and Sue are married and now retired. (And to keep my math simple, I'm going to say they are both 66 years old.) Bill had the better paying job, and he now gets $2,200 per month from Social Security. Sue's monthly Social Security retirement check is only $900. While Bill is alive, Sue will always get her own $900 payment, but it will be supplemented with $200 from Bill's account, making her total Social Security income $1,100 monthly. (At age 66, Sue is due up to 50 percent of Bill's Social Security.)
And if Bill dies before Sue, then Sue will start getting $1,300 in widow's benefits to supplement her own $900 retirement check, making her total monthly income, or $2,200, match Bill's benefit rate.
Now let me change that example a bit. Let's say that Sue had died first. Do you think that Bill would expect to get any widower's benefits from Social Security? I don't think he would, because he knows that his own $2,200 monthly payment is way more than Sue's little $900 Social Security benefit. In other words, Bill was not financially dependent on Sue, so he doesn't really expect to get a dependent widower's benefit from the government.
Well, that's pretty much what we have going on in your situation, except the gender roles are reversed. You said you had a better paying job than your husband, meaning you were not the dependent spouse in your household. So why should you qualify for a "dependent" widow's benefit? In fact, if you had died before your husband did, he would have qualified for a widower's benefit on your record — the difference between his Social Security rate and yours.
One final point. You asked where all his Social Security tax dollars went. Well, a little bit of it could be paying my Social Security check. And some of it might be in the widow's benefit that my next door neighbor gets. And maybe even a portion of it is wrapped up in your monthly retirement benefits. In other words, his money is just part of the big Social Security pot that's paying benefits to millions of Social Security beneficiaries.