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Social Security and You: Benefits for Spouses and Widows Are Sometimes Controversial

Tom Margenau on

I'm going to start out today's column by answering a question from a reader about her potential eligibility for benefits from one of her prior husbands' Social Security accounts. I am going to follow that up with typical comments I always get from other readers who are critical of these kinds of benefits.

Q: I have worked most of my life, but I had severe medical problems and ended up going on Social Security disability when I was 58. I just turned 62, and I've been told that I can now file for benefits from my second husband. We are divorced, but we were married for over 25 years. He brags that he gets the maximum Social Security benefit. So, can I get half of his and my disability benefit at the same time? And FYI, my first husband died at the age of 35, and we were married for only eight years, so I am sure I'm not due anything on his record because that was so long ago.

A: Believe it or not, it is much more likely that you might be due benefits from your first husband's Social Security record than your second husband's.

There are two reasons for that. First, a widows benefit pays more money than what you would be due as a divorced wife of a living ex-husband. And second, even though your first husband died a long time ago, his past earnings are indexed for inflation. So, I'm guessing your widows benefit will be much higher than you think.

At age 62, you would not be due half of your second husband's Social Security. It would be more like one-third of it. You said he claims to be getting the maximum benefits. There really is no set maximum benefit. But let's say he is getting $2,800 per month. One-third of that is about $925. You cannot get that $925 amount in addition to your own disability benefit. You can only get the benefit that pays the higher rate. And I'm guessing you are getting a lot more than $925 in disability benefits. So, that means you are not due anything from husband No. 2's Social Security record.

But husband No. 1 might be a different story. At age 62, you'd be due about 82% of whatever his indexed-for-inflation benefit might be. If that is more than you are getting now in disability benefits, you could make the switch. Or you could choose to wait until you are 66 years old, at which point you could switch to 100% of what would have been his full retirement benefit -- again, adjusted to today's dollars.

 

The only way you can find out what you are potentially due from your first husband or your second husband is to call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213.

And now here is the controversy. I frequently hear from readers who criticize the fact that women like this are eligible for any spousal benefits at all. And surprisingly, these criticisms almost always come from other women.

Here is a typical comment: "I don't think a woman should be able to get widows benefits from a guy who died a long time ago and to whom she was only married for a short time. My husband and I were married for 40 years before he died. I deserve to get his Social Security. But I don't think that a woman who has gone through several husbands should be able to pick and choose which benefits she gets!"

I usually try to see both sides of the story. For example, on the one hand, I sort of understand where this criticism comes from. Consider the case of the woman who sent in the question I answered above. She was married to her first husband for just eight years. And he died about 30 years ago. Yet there is a pretty good possibility that she now might be due widows benefits on his record.

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