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Two Widows Present Unusual Social Security Cases

Mar 2, 2017
Social Security Q&A

I am constantly amazed! I have either worked for the Social Security Administration, or been writing a column about Social Security issues, for about 44 years. And you would think that in all of that time, I have bumped up against almost every possible Social Security scenario one could imagine.

Yet, just recently, I received two emails from readers, both of them widows, who related two different Social Security experiences that I have never encountered! And here they are.

Q: I am a workingwoman who turned 66 several years ago and filed for my full retirement age benefits at that time. I received exactly one check when something unexpected happened. My husband died. When I talked to the Social Security people about this, they said that my widow's benefits were slightly higher than my retirement rate. So they switched me to my husband's benefits. Fast-forward four years. I am still working and am now about to turn 70. I wondered if my own benefit might now be higher than my widow's rate. When I called Social Security's hotline about this, the woman who answered told me I could not switch. She said I'm allowed only one benefit switch in my lifetime, and I got that when I changed to widow's benefits four years ago. If I had known that at the time, I never would have switched. My widow's rate was only a few dollars more than my retirement, which I knew would continue to grow because of my added earnings over the years. What can I do?

A: You can call the Social Security people back, or visit your local Social Security office, and hope you don't get such a clunker of an agent! I will never know where that phone representative you talked to came up with the "only one benefit switch" rule. She is just plain wrong. You can and should switch to your own retirement benefits.

You said your widow's benefit rate was just "slightly higher" than your retirement benefit -- and that was four years ago. But now, your retirement rate should be significantly more than your widow's rate.

Your retirement benefit has increased for two reasons. One: The extra earnings you've had since age 66 very likely have increased your own benefit by -- I'm guessing -- about $50 to $100 per month. On top of that, you get what are called "delayed retirement credits." That credit equals two-thirds of one percent for each month after age 66 that you didn't get a retirement check. There are 48 months between 66 and 70, and you got a retirement check for just one of those months. So you are due an increase for the other 47 months, or about 31 percent.

You actually will have two choices. You can take that extra $50 to $100 per month and get the 31 percent bonus on top of that -- effective with age 70. Or you can take six months' worth of retroactive benefits. In that scenario, you'd get the $50 to $100 boost along with roughly a 28 percent bonus, minus the widow's benefits you've already received.

So again, go back to the Social Security people, find the right agent who knows his or her stuff, and go over your options.

Q: I am 64 years old. About four months ago, my 62-year-old husband was taken very ill. He was unable to function for himself. I went to the Social Security office to file for disability benefits for him. It was a very stressful time for me, but somehow I got through all the paperwork. Very sadly, my husband died after getting just one Social Security check. I went back to Social Security to file for widow's benefits. And I was told that because he got reduced retirement benefits, my widow's benefits would also be reduced. But I don't think he got retirement benefits. I was trying to get him disability checks. What is going on?

A: Bear in mind that I don't have all the facts in your case. But I'm going to suggest you go to your local Social Security office and ask to speak to a supervisor. You need someone with a little more experience because you have a bit of an odd situation.

When you thought you were filing for disability benefits, my hunch is that you actually filed for what is essentially a retirement/disability joint claim. When a claim is filed by anyone pushing age 62 who alleges a disability, they almost always automatically take both a retirement and a disability claim. They do that because they can process the retirement claim quickly and start paying benefits while they work on the disability claim, which can take months. Then when the disability claim is approved, they simply switch the case from a reduced retirement to full disability. This happens all the time

But the twist in your husband's case is that he died after getting just that one reduced retirement check -- before the disability claim was processed. And the fact that he got reduced retirement does impact your widow's benefits.

So you need to talk to someone at Social Security to go over all of this. If they had a disability claim in the works, they obviously should be able to now approve that claim and switch him (posthumously) from reduced retirement to disability. Even if they say you only filed for reduced retirement benefits (which I find unlikely), then I'd still ask if there is some way they could switch that to a disability claim.

I know it will be a hassle going to your local Social Security office. But all of this certainly would be worth asking about. And again, the key is finding the right person -- someone with lots of experience. That's why you really need to talk to a supervisor.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net.

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