I wouldn't know how to go about getting accurate information about this issue, but based on the emails I receive, I'd guess that 75 percent of my readers are women. Here are some example emails.
Q: I am 75 years old and getting widow's benefits from my first husband, who died many years ago. I was married a second time for 20 years to another man. He was a doctor and made millions. I divorced him because of physical abuse I suffered. He is living in a mansion in California. What I can't figure out is why I am not getting any of his Social Security?
A: You're not getting any of his Social Security because he's not dead -- yet. (I'm not trying to give you any ideas.)
A widow's rate pays up to twice as much as the rate paid to a wife (or divorced wife) of a guy who is still alive. So, if you are due two benefits, you only get the one that pays the higher rate. You might be getting up to 100 percent of your deceased first husband's Social Security. But you are only due one-half of your second husband's benefit. And I'm sure 100 percent from husband No. 1 pays more than 50 percent from husband No. 2 -- no matter how rich he is. All I can suggest you do is order a subscription to the newspaper in the town where your ex lives and start reading the obituaries!
Q: I am 73 years old. I get $1,560 per month in my own retirement benefits. My ex-husband, who always made a six-figure income, must be getting way more than me. So I figure I am due something extra from his Social Security. I talked to someone at my Social Security office about this, and she said I'm not eligible for anything on his record because no one is getting $3,120 per month. What did she mean by that?
A: What she was trying to explain to you is that you are either due your own Social Security benefit, or half of your ex-husband's basic full retirement age benefit, whichever pays the higher rate. Currently, the maximum full retirement benefit is about $2,700. Half of that is $1,350. Your own Social Security retirement exceeds that, so that is why you aren't due anything from your ex-husband's Social Security account.
Or to clarify the Social Security rep's remarks a little more, she was trying to tell you that you could only get benefits on your ex's account if one half of his Social Security rate exceeds what you are getting. You're getting $1,560, so your ex would have to be getting $3,120 or more before you could get anything extra from him. And since no retiree can be getting that much in just a basic Social Security check, you're not eligible for divorced wife's benefits.
Q: I am 71 years old. I get $1,415 from Social Security. My rich ex-husband told me he is getting monthly benefits of $3,430. So I should be getting half of that, or $1,716. How come I'm not?
A: As I explained in the answer to the prior question, that rate payable to a wife is based on the husband's full retirement age rate. In other words, the rate he would have been due at age 66. With a monthly benefit as high as his, I'm sure he didn't start his Social Security checks until age 70. And by doing that, he got an extra 32 percent "delayed retirement bonus" tacked on to his monthly checks. So I'm guessing his full retirement age rate is around $2,600. And you are due half of that, or $1,300. So the reason you are not getting wife's benefits is because your own $1,415 rate exceeds your spousal benefit rate.
Q: Every woman I know is getting half of her husband's Social Security. But I'm getting nowhere near that. Why don't I get half?
A: Although each questioner will phrase her inquiry differently, this is probably the most common question a woman will ask me.
A woman will get half of her husband's Social Security (assuming it is more than her own retirement benefit) if she waits until age 66 to claim spousal benefits. My guess is that you started your benefits before you were 66. If you took them at age 62, for example, you should be getting about one-third of your husband's Social Security.
And frankly, I doubt if "every woman" you know is getting half of her husband's Social Security. Statistics show the majority of women start taking benefits before their full retirement age, which means most women are getting less than the 50 percent spousal rate.
Q: I always earned more money than my husband, so now I get a higher Social Security benefit than he receives. Someone told me that if I die first, he won't get anything extra from my account because only women can get widow's benefits. Is this true?
A: Well, technically it's true that only women get "widow's" benefits. But a man, including your husband, would certainly be entitled to "widower's" benefits. The eligibility rules for widows and widowers are the same. So if you die first, your husband will keep getting his own retirement benefit. Then he will get the difference between your rate and his rate in the form of widower's benefits added to his Social Security check.
Q: I just turned 62. My ex-husband says I should take reduced spousal benefits on his record now and then at age 66, switch to 100 percent of my own Social Security. How do I go about doing that?
A: You can't do that. The rules say if you take any Social Security benefits before age 66, you MUST file for your own reduced retirement first. Only after you are getting those benefits will they look to your ex's record to see if you are due any additional divorced spouse benefits.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at email@example.com. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.