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Social Security and You: Social Security Benefits for Widows

Tom Margenau on

I've saved up some questions that are either from widows or from husbands or wives wondering about future widow's benefits. Here are some of them.

Q: I want to make sure my wife gets the highest widow's benefits possible after I'm gone. How do I do that?

A: If that's your only goal with respect to claiming your own Social Security benefits, then the answer is really rather simple: Wait as long as possible to sign up for your retirement benefits.

While you are alive, any spousal benefits your wife might be due are based on your full retirement age benefit amount. But after you're gone, her widow's rate will be based on whatever benefit rate you were getting at the time of your death. So, for example, if you waited until age 70 to start your Social Security, meaning you would be getting about 130% of your FRA benefit, your wife will also get that 130% rate in the form of widow's benefits (assuming she is over her FRA when you die).

Q: I am 72. My husband is 82. I get my own Social Security. It is $2,850 per month. And he gets his own benefit. It's $3,280. When he dies, will I get my own benefit and his? Or how does that work?

A: The law says when you are due two Social Security benefits, you don't get them both. You only get the one that pays the higher rate. Or to be more precise, you are generally always paid your own benefit first. And then that is supplemented with an amount to take your total benefits up to whatever you might be due on your husband's record.

 

So, if he dies first, you'll keep getting your $2,850. And then you'll get $430 in widow's benefits to take you up to his $3,280 rate.

Q: I am 70 years old, and I am working part time. But throughout our 40-year marriage, I was a stay-at-home mom for much of the time. My husband, who was a doctor, died four years ago. I get widow's benefits and not my own. However, every year I get a letter telling me my own retirement benefit went up, but my check never increases. Can you explain this?

A: As I explained in the prior answer, I'm sure that on the Social Security Administration's books, you are getting your own small Social Security benefit that is supplemented with higher widow's benefits. So, as you work, your own benefit gradually increases every year. But it will probably never reach the point where it exceeds your widow's rate, and that's why nothing changes.

Let me further explain this with an example. Let's say your own Social Security retirement benefit is $800 per month, and that your widow's benefit is $3,400 per month. So, on the SSA's books, you are getting your own $800, and you are getting $2,600 in widow's benefits to take you up to his $3,400 level.

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