Tom Margenau, Columnist
Creators News Service
Why does a woman need a special guide to Social Security? After all, almost all Social Security rules are asexual. For example, retirement benefits are figured the same way for men and women. Spousal benefits are also gender neutral. In other words, a woman can possibly qualify for benefits as a wife or widow in the same way that a man might qualify for benefits as a husband or widower.
But even though Social Security’s rules treat men and women equally, society and history have not treated men and women the same way. Men tend to work for a longer period of time and have more years of earnings on their Social Security record in part because women bear more of the burden of child rearing and spend more years out of the paid work force. And statistically, men tend to earn more than women so they have higher earnings on their Social Security record.
Those and other factors are why men usually end up with higher monthly Social Security retirement benefits than women. And because women have lower retirement benefits, that means they are more likely to qualify for supplemental benefits as a spouse on their husband’s or ex-husband’s Social Security record. And that is the primary reason for this fact sheet: to help women (and their husbands) understand the rules associated with eligibility for benefits as a wife, a divorced wife, a widow, or a divorced widow.
So this fact sheet is about the benefits you might be able to claim as a spouse on your husband’s, or ex-husband’s Social Security record.
However, because Social Security rules are gender neutral, it’s important to note that if you made more money than your husband, then he might be due dependent husband or widower’s benefits on your record. The rules are the same.
There are some general rules about Social Security that apply in most situations and that everyone needs to understand. Here are some of them.
Your own Social Security benefit
If you have worked enough to qualify for your own Social Security benefit, you will usually be paid that benefit first. After paying your own benefit, the Social Security Administration will then look to your husband’s (or ex-husband’s) Social Security record to see if you qualify for any supplemental spousal benefits on that record.
Most Social Security applications are open-ended
SSA has a rule that says an application for one Social Security benefit is automatically considered an application for all other Social Security benefits you are due. Here is an example of what that means. You generally cannot apply for benefits as a wife on your husband’s Social Security record at age 62, and then later switch to your own benefits at age 66. Your application for wife’s benefits is automatically considered an application for your own Social Security benefits – and vice versa.
But there are two big exceptions to that rule. If you wait until age 66 (or later) to file for Social Security, then you can restrict your application to one benefit or another. For example, you could file for wife’s benefits (or divorced wife’s benefits) at 66, and then at age 70, switch to full benefits on your own record. And those retirement benefits would come with a “delayed retirement bonus” of about 32 percent. In other words, at age 70, you would start getting about 132 percent of your own Social Security benefit.
The other exception applies to widows (or divorced widows). A widow has the choice of taking reduced benefits on one record and later switching to full benefits on another record. For example, a widow could take reduced retirement benefits at age 62, and then at age 66, switch to full widow’s benefits.
This is an important eligibility factor for spousal benefits. Simply put – you do not qualify for wife’s or widow’s benefits simply because you are or were married to your husband. Instead, you qualify for those benefits if you are/were married AND if you are/were financially dependent on your husband. To keep matters simple, the law just assumes that if your Social Security benefit is less than your husband’s benefit, then you are deemed to be financially dependent on him. This does NOT mean that just because your Social Security rate is less than your husband’s rate, that you automatically qualify for benefits on his record. All it means is that you meet the dependency test – just one of several entitlement factors.
And the corollary to that dependency assumption is that if you get a higher Social Security benefit than your husband does, or if you get a higher non-Social Security retirement pension (like teacher’s pensions in some states), then you are not financially dependent on your husband and you cannot get wife’s or widow’s benefits on his record.
Duration of marriage
As a general rule, you must have been married to your husband for at least one year in order to qualify for benefits as a wife on his record. To qualify for widow’s benefits, the duration of marriage rule is only nine months. However, if you are divorced, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years before you can get divorced wife’s or divorced widow’s benefits.
If you have been married more than once
If you have been married to more than one man, you are potentially due benefits on either husband’s Social Security record (assuming you meet the eligibility requirements; like duration of marriage or your age). You won’t collect benefits on both records. You will get benefits from the husband on whose record you are due the higher benefit.
And if you are currently married to one man, you cannot collect benefits on another man’s Social Security record. The primary exception to this rule applies to widows who remarry after age 60. A woman over age 60 can get married and still be eligible for benefits from a deceased husband’s (or ex-husband’s) Social Security record.
If your ex remarries, this generally will not impact you. Assuming his second wife is also eligible for benefits on his record, both of you will get whatever benefits you are due. Benefits paid to a current wife do not offset those paid to a divorced wife.
Earnings penalty if you are under age 66 and working
If you are under age 66 and collecting Social Security benefits, and if you are working, the same earnings penalty rules apply to your spousal benefits as they would to a person getting retirement benefits. These earnings penalty rules can be quite complicated. In a nutshell, the law says that for every $2 you earn above $14,160 per year, $1 must be withheld from your Social Security benefits. In the year you reach age 66, you can earn up to $37,680 with no penalty. For more information about how the earnings penalty works, read the fact sheet: “How Work Affects Your Social Security Benefits.” You can find that fact sheet at the Social Security Administration’s website. The link is: www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10069.html.
Benefits for Wives or Ex-Wives (i.e., your husband or ex is still alive)
A wife or divorced wife is due up to one-half of her husband’s Social Security benefit. You would get that 50 percent rate if you wait until age 66 to claim benefits. But if you take spousal benefits before age 66, the rate is reduced roughly one-half of one percent for each month. The earliest you can claim a wife’s (or divorced wife’s) benefit is age 62, at which point you would be due about 33 percent of your husband’s rate.
And as pointed out in the general section, you cannot get your own Social Security benefit AND a full spousal benefit on your husband’s or ex-husband’s record. You would only get spousal benefits to the extent that they exceed your own benefit.
Note: your spousal benefit is almost always based on a percentage of your husband’s full age 66 rate, even though he might have taken benefits before age 66.
Also note: if your husband delayed his retirement until after age 66, meaning he is getting his full Social Security benefit plus a delayed retirement bonus, your spousal rate is based on his age 66 benefit. In other words, you do not share in his delayed retirement bonus. But if he dies, your widow’s rate will be based on his delayed retirement bonus amount.
If you are still married to your husband, he must be collecting Social Security benefits before you can claim benefits on his record.
However, if you are divorced, the law says he must simply be old enough to qualify for Social Security (i.e., age 62 or older). Your ex does not have to be actually receiving Social Security benefits.
Some divorced men worry that benefits paid to an ex-wife will reduce their own Social Security benefit. This is NOT true. Benefits paid to an ex wife do not reduce any other benefits payable on the husband’s Social Security account, including any benefits due the ex-husband’s current wife if he remarried.
Benefits for Widows (or divorced widows) whose husband has died
A widow or divorced widow is generally eligible for up to 100 percent of her husband’s Social Security benefit. Widows age 66 and older get the full 100 percent rate. If you start your widow’s benefits before age 66, they are reduced about one-half of one percent for each month. The earliest you can receive regular widow’s benefits is at age 60, when you are due a 70 percent rate.
There are two situations when a woman under age 60 can collect Social Security widow’s benefits.
1) Disabled widows who are at least 50 years old can collect benefits on a deceased husband’s or ex-husband’s Social Security record. But the medical eligibility requirements are very strict so you must be severely disabled to qualify. A disabled widow gets 70 percent of her husband’s benefit.
2) A widow with one or more minor children in her care can collect “mother’s benefits” at any age – as long as the youngest child is 16 or under. (The children generally collect benefits until age 18.) The “mother’s benefit” rate is 75 percent.
Your eligibility for widow’s benefits and the amount of those benefits depends on the age at which you become a widow and on whether or not you are due your own Social Security benefits.
If you are over 60 when your husband (or ex-husband) dies but were not yet getting Social Security benefits and you have worked and have your 40 quarters:
You will have some choices to make. As explained in the general rules section above, a person usually cannot take reduced benefits on one record and later switch to full benefits on another record. But widows are given that option. You could take reduced benefits on one record and later switch to full benefits on the other record. Which option is best for you depends entirely on the money amounts involved, so you will have to go over your choices with your local Social Security representative.
If you are over 60 when your husband or ex-husband dies, and you have never worked (i.e., you don’t have your 40 quarters), and you are not currently getting spousal benefits:
You should apply for widow’s or divorced widow’s benefits as soon as possible. However, if you have other income and are under age 66, you may want to delay filing for widow’s benefits until that time to get a higher (unreduced) rate. You should discuss your options with a Social Security representative.
If you are between age 62 and 66 when your husband (or ex-husband) dies and you were getting your own Social Security benefit, or a combination of your own and a wife’s (or divorced wife’s) benefit on your husband’s record:
Generally, you will start getting widow’s benefits – assuming they pay a higher rate you’re your own Social Security, after you file an application with SSA. But you do have options similar to those described above. You need to discuss those options with someone at your local Social Security office.
If you are over 62 when your husband dies and you were getting only a wife’s (or divorced wife’s) benefit on your husband’s record:
That benefit usually will be automatically converted to a widow’s rate effective with the month of death, as soon as SSA learns of your husband’s death. As a general rule, your widow’s rate will equal the amount he was getting at the time of death.
If you are over age 66 when your husband (or ex-husband) dies and you were getting your own Social Security benefit:
You will continue to receive that benefit. If it was less than your husband’s rate, your benefit will be supplemented with widow’s benefits to take your total monthly amount up to your husband’s rate as soon as you file a widow’s application with SSA. If your own benefit exceeds your husband’s rate, then you are not due any widow’s benefits.
Notifying SSA of your husband’s death
The Social Security Administration frequently learns of the death of a beneficiary (i.e., someone already getting Social Security benefits) through computer matching activities with bureaus of vital statistics around the country. But you or a family member should still check with SSA after your husband dies to make sure they are aware of the death.
If your husband was not getting Social Security before he died, then the computer-matching procedures discussed above usually will not apply. If you’re going to be filing a claim for widow’s benefits, you will have to provide a death certificate as part of the application process.
Benefits for the month of death
If your husband was getting Social Security benefits when he died, he or his estate is not due those benefits for the month of death. In other words, the law says your husband must be alive for an entire month to be due Social Security benefits for that month. This rule is often offset by the fact that you would be due widow’s benefits (assuming you meet the eligibility rules) for that entire month, even though you were a widow for only part of the month.
Here is an example. Frank Smith, age 75, was getting $2,000 per month in Social Security retirement benefits. His 70 year old wife, Helen, was getting $1,000 in monthly wife’s benefits on Frank’s record. Frank died on October 20th. His Social Security check that comes in November (which is the payment for October) must be returned. Assuming he had direct deposit, the bank frequently returns the payment automatically. But Helen is due $2,000 per month in widow’s benefits effective with October. As soon as the Social Security Administration is notified of the death, they will process the change. The payment she receives in December will probably be for $3,000, which includes her $2,000 widow’s benefit for November and the extra $1,000 in benefits she was due for the month of October
Social Security also pays a small one-time death benefit of $255. It can only be paid to a widow who was living with the deceased at the time of death. If your husband was not getting Social Security at the time of death, then you must file an application with SSA for the benefit. If your husband was getting Social Security when he died, and you were getting spousal benefits on his record and living at the same address, you should automatically receive the $255 death benefit because SSA’s records already show you were living together. In all other situations, an application for the death benefit is probably necessary. Contact SSA to find out what you need to do.
Talk to a Social Security Representative
Because there are so many variables to your potential eligibility for Social Security benefits, and because each person has a unique set of circumstances, there is no way that a simple fact sheet can answer every question or deal with every situation you may have. That’s why you need to discuss your particular Social Security case with a Social Security representative. You can visit your local Social Security office or you can call SSA’s toll free number: 1-800-772-1213. You also can go to SSA’s website for more information: www.socialsecurity.gov.