Category Archives: Q & A

Will the SSA Notify you if you Beome Eligible for Widow(er)s Benefits?

This week’s question comes from Lori.

I claimed social security 3 years ago under my ex-husband’s benefits. I was told when I applied at my local social security office that upon his death, I would get an additional benefit. Will social security inform me of his should it occur? If not, how will I know and will I need to apply for this additional benefit?

Lori, you ask an important question since many people (usually women) find themselves in a similar situation. You were married for at least 10 years and you are not currently married to someone else. Moreover, you stand to increase your social security benefits when your ex-spouse dies by claiming a survivor’s benefit on his or her record. As with many people in your situation, you are no longer in contact with your ex-spouse so you are uncertain as to when to apply for benefits.
Will the SSA notify you of the death of your ex-spouse? In your case, the answer is “yes.” But in many other circumstances, the opposite is true.

You are presently receiving benefits on your ex-husband’s record. Assuming he dies before you, the SSA will let you know when he has died because your spousal benefit will stop. At that point, you can apply for survivor’s benefits. Suppose your ex-husband dies in June and you are notified in July that your ex-spousal benefits have ended. If you apply immediately for survivor’s benefits, you can request that your survivor’s benefits begin in August (with the actual payment made a month later). If your application takes several weeks to process, you will receive a retroactive payment for the months that you should have been paid.

It is different story if you are not receiving ex-spousal benefits. In this case, the SSA does not notify you of your ex-spouse’s death, even though you are now eligible for survivor’s benefits. The burden now would be on you to find out about his death. For many, the easiest way to find out about his death is contact the SSA every few months and ask: “Is my ex-husband still alive?”
If you have reached your full retirement age, you can request retroactive payments for up to 6 months. So, you do not stand to lose anything by checking with the SSA every 6 months.

About me
I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years.
In 2009, I co-founded, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

Q & A for October 21, 2019

On occasion we will post an answer to a question about Social Security that we have received. If you have your own question, put it into the comment section of this post and we will answer it as soon as possible.

Today’s question comes from Janel:

My husband and I have been together for over 20 years but married less than 10. Does a “legally separated” status or “married living separately” possibly allow each other to benefit from SSA spousal benefits? My husband was born in 1958; I am two years younger. At full retirement age, his estimated Social Security benefit is about $2400; mine is approximately $950.

Janel, if you have been married for at least one year, you are potentially eligible to receive some amount of spousal benefits. The 10-year rule to which you refer applies to divorced persons. To qualify for spousal benefits as an ex-spouse, you would need to have been married for at least 10 years (and divorced for at least 2 years. If your state recognizes common-law marriages, then “living together” can satisfy SSA’s marriage rules.

The amount of spousal benefits you might receive depends on the relative size of your husband’s FRA benefit and your FRA benefit. If your FRA benefit was zero, then you could receive one-half of your husband’s FRA benefit at your FRA; that is, $1250. However, you have benefits of your own. So, the SSA tops off your benefit of $950 with a spousal supplement of $300, bringing your total benefit up to $1250.

I used my firm’s software to analyze your case a bit further. I assume normal life expectancies of 82 for your husband and 86 for Janel. The analysis shows that you can maximize your lifetime benefits as a couple by doing the following. Janel claims her own benefit at age 62; she will receive $665 in reduced retirement benefits. She cannot claim spousal benefits until her husband claims his own benefit. My analysis indicates that’s he should claim at 69, receiving $2847 as a result of delayed retirement credits. At this point, Janel qualifies for her spousal supplement of $300 increasing her total benefit to $995. Since she will start receiving the spousal supplement after reaching her FRA, there is no early claiming penalty (as there was with her own benefit).

As a final point, the computer evaluation revealed that Janel could claim at any other age up to her FRA and suffer very little in terms of lost social security benefits. So, if she chooses to work past age 62 and the social security earnings penalty  is significant for her, it may make sense to delay claiming her social security benefits.