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Women who say they are not getting enough from Social Security
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Just out of curiosity, I wanted to find out what the most common questions readers have been asking lately were. I was pretty sure I knew, and a quick check of my emails from the past month verified what I thought. By far, the most questions came from women who think they should be getting higher benefits on a husband’s account. Here are some examples.

Q: I am 86. I took my Social Security at age 62. I get $1,230 per month. My husband is 95. He waited until he was 70 to start his Social Security. He gets $3,020. I know a wife gets half of her husband’s benefits. Half of his is $1,510. So, by my calculations, I should be getting $280 in spousal benefits to take me up to that $1,510 level. We went to our Social Security office, and they told us he has to be dead before I can get any of this Social Security. You said in your columns that a wife gets half. So how do I let the Social Security people know they are wrong?

A: They are not wrong. And in my column, I’ve said maybe a thousand times over the years that a wife gets half of her husband’s Social Security IF she waits until her full retirement age to claim benefits. You didn’t do that. You took reduced retirement benefits at 62 and a similar reduction carries over to any wife’s benefits you might be due on your husband’s account. At 62, the spousal rate is about 35%. 

And it’s not 35% of your husband’s age-70 rate; it’s 35% of his age-65 rate (65 was his full retirement age). I’m guessing that rate is about $2,300 per month. And 35% of that is about $805. Your own $1,230 benefit is way more than that. So you aren’t due anything on your husband’s account.

You aren’t due anything now. But when he dies, you will get widows benefits. A widow over full retirement age gets 100% of whatever the husband was getting at the time of death, including any extra benefits he got for waiting until age 70 to start his Social Security. So, when your husband dies, you will keep getting your $1,230 retirement check, and you will get an extra $1,790 to take your total benefits up to his current $3,020 rate.

Readers should note the ages of the people who sent me this first question. I am constantly amazed by the number of emails I get from very old readers, people who have been getting benefits for decades, who still question the amount of benefits they are getting. I often wonder: Have they been stewing over this perceived injustice for all these years? Or did something they read just recently prompt them to write to me? Well, this next question shows there are some people in the first category.

Q: I am 82 years old. I’ve been upset about this for almost 20 years now. I took my own Social Security at 62. I was getting about $800 per month. Then, when I turned 65, they switched me to widows benefits on my deceased husband’s record. I started getting about $1,400. (Of course, over the years, that has grown as the cost of living increases. I now get about $1,900.) But here is what has always bothered me. What happened to my own benefits? I worked hard all my life. And, poof! That money just went away when they switched me to a widows check!

A: Well, I hope this makes you feel a little better. Your own benefits didn’t go “poof!” What actually happened back when you turned 65 is that they kept paying you your own $800 benefit, and they started giving you an extra $600 in widows benefits to take you up to your husband’s $1,400 level. And both benefits kept growing over the years. You said you are getting $1,900 now. I’m guessing about $1,200 of that is your own retirement money and the remainder is your widows benefit.

And here is a recent email in a similar vein. This is from a widow who understands how the combined payments work, but she’s still upset.

Q: I am 68. Before my 71-year-old husband died recently, I was getting $2,328 per month, and he was getting $2,649. After he died, I started getting $2,649 in widows benefits. The Social Security people told me this is actually my $2,328 check and $321 on his record. But come on! Get real! This is all just bookkeeping malarkey. In other words, if I never worked a day in my life, I still would be getting that $2,649 widows check. So I’m really not getting my own Social Security. I’m just getting a widows check. And my money is gone! I think if the system really was fair, I should get both my own $2,328 retirement check and $2,649 in widows benefits.

 A: I understand where you are coming from. But let me make a couple of points. First of all, whether you believe it or not, $2,328 of your current $2649 benefit really is coming off of your own Social Security account. At least, that’s the way it is set up on the Social Security Administration books. It’s not “malarkey.” It’s really happening.

Still, I know this doesn’t appease you because the bottom line is that you are still getting a total benefit of $2,649 (your husband’s rate), and it just feels like a widows benefit to you.

Secondly, I must address your idea that you should be getting both benefits — your own full retirement check and a full widows benefit — at the same time. At first glance, this maybe seems fair, and a lot of people might agree with you. But think of it this way: If you can get two full benefits, then any married person should be able to get two benefits. For example, if Warren Buffett’s wife died, should he get his own Social Security check and a widowers check on his wife’s account? Or, take my neighbor. He’s a retired executive with a fairly substantial Social Security check. If his wife dies, should he be able to get a widowers benefit on top of his already maximum retirement check? 

I could get into a long discussion about the financial dependency clause that is the root of eligibility for spousal benefits from Social Security. But I hope you see my point. If the system had been paying all of these extra spousal benefits over the years — essentially double benefits to everyone — it would have gone belly up a long time ago.