Clarifying Benefits for Wives

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column explaining benefits that are payable to spouses. And by spouses, I almost always am referring to a wife and the benefits she might be due on her husband’s Social Security record.

And whenever I write such a column, my inbox is immediately flooded with emails from women who think they are being cheated out of spousal benefits. Somehow, they always misread what I have written. They think I am saying that every woman should be getting her own Social Security benefits and something extra off her husband’s record.

That is not what I am saying. In fact, usually just the opposite is true. If you are a woman who has worked most of her life, it is highly likely that once you reach retirement age, you will just get your own Social Security benefit. You won’t be due anything on your husband’s record—at least while he is alive. While he is alive and kicking, you are either due your own retirement benefit or a small percentage (between 30 percent and 50 percent) of your husband’s benefit, whichever pays more. And almost always, your own benefit pays more than that small percentage of his.

For example, one woman wrote to tell me that based on my recent column, she was convinced she wasn’t getting enough from Social Security. She said she took benefits at 62 and gets $622 per month. She said her husband gets $1,510 per month. She claims my column said she should be getting half of his benefit, or $755.

If she had read my column more carefully, she would have understood that a wife gets the 50 percent rate only if she waits until her full retirement age to claim benefits. But she took benefits at 62. So, she isn’t due half of her husband’s benefit. She is only due about 30 percent of it. And 30 percent of his $1,510 rate is around $503. And her own $622 benefit is much more than that. So, she is not due any spousal benefits.

Once her husband dies, it’s a different story. A widow’s benefit can be as much as 100 percent of his Social Security rate if she is over her full retirement age when he dies. So that woman would start getting $1,510 when her husband passes away.

But benefits for widows is a story for another column. Today, I’m concentrating on benefits you are due from your still-breathing husband. And to repeat: If you have your own Social Security benefit, you likely are not due anything from his record.

Having made that point, I must admit that there are women whose own Social Security benefit is so low and their husband’s benefit is so high that they can get some extra spousal benefits. If your husband was already getting Social Security benefits at the time you filed for your own benefits, the Social Security Administration would have automatically looked at his record to see if you were due anything. If your husband filed later, the SSA also should have checked at that time to see if you were due extra spousal benefits. If you don’t think they did that, then call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to verify.

And this whole topic of women thinking they should be getting extra spousal benefits brings up a related issue. Based on my 32 years of experience working for the Social Security Administration and the 24 years I’ve been writing this column, I can tell you that the No. 1 complaint I hear from people—by far—is this: “I don’t think I am getting the right Social Security benefit amount. I should get more!”

And perhaps unsurprisingly, not once in the past four decades has anyone told me that he or she was getting too much money! I guess that’s just human nature. People tend to believe they are being cheated out of something that everyone else is getting.

I think this phenomenon sometimes results when senior citizens start talking and comparing government benefit amounts. The person getting less inevitably feels as if he or she has been left holding the short end of the Social Security stick. What they don’t understand is that there are dozens of variables that determine the amount of a Social Security check—things like date of birth, earnings history, your age when you filed for benefits, early retirement reductions, late retirement bonuses, etc.

Readers who follow this column know that I am often critical of the SSA and the service the organization provides. But I can tell you there is one thing they are very good at: The SSA is very careful and very accurate about calculating Social Security benefits. There have been countless studies done by Congress and other oversight agencies concerning the accuracy of Social Security payments. And the studies show that SSA pays the right benefit amount something like 99 percent of the time.

I should clarify that I am talking about the accuracy of the initial calculation of a person’s basic Social Security benefit amount. People getting ongoing Social Security checks can be paid incorrectly from time to time. But that’s usually because the SSA has faulty information. For example, a person who is working and making more than the earnings penalty limit fails to inform the government of his or her income, resulting in benefits being paid that were not due. Those kinds of “overpayments” are common. But the person’s basic Social Security benefit amount is still accurate.

Here’s a recent question I got from a reader: “I am 82 years old. My wife is 80. I’m getting less money from Social Security than any of our friends. And my wife doesn’t get any benefits on my record, but all the other women we know get their husband’s Social Security. How can we get this corrected?”

I answered this person by saying there is probably nothing to correct. As I mentioned above, there are dozens of different reasons why the benefits you get are different than what your friends get. Besides, the time to question the accuracy of your Social Security checks is when they first start. That’s when you have a formal appeal period to request a review of your claim. There is no point in questioning it 20 years later. But if this is going to continue to bother you, you could call the SSA at 800-772-1213 and hope you find a friendly agent who will go over all your records with you.

Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers, and recently published the book “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” If you have a Social Security question, contact him at

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Tom Margenau
Author: Tom Margenau

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