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May 25, 2010 Tuesday 12:03 AM EST
SECTION: A SPOUSE YOU CAN DEPEND ON
LENGTH: 887 words
HEADLINE: A Spouse You Can Depend on
BYLINE: Tom Margenau
Q: I am 66 years old. My husband died when I was 60, but I never was able to get widow’s benefits because I was still working. I’ve just applied for Social Security and learned I’ll only receive my benefits and nothing from my husband. They said it’s because my retirement payment is higher than my husband’s monthly rate.I think the fact that I’ll never receive any of my husband’s Social Security isn’t fair! And especially when I read your columns about divorced women getting spousal benefits. Is this any way to treat a woman who was married for 40 years? I think I should get both benefits – my own and my husband’s! A: You sound pretty upset and I realize that nothing I tell you is going to make you think the system is fair. But I’ll try to explain the law.Although there are some elements of “insurance” built into Social Security (you have to pay “premiums,” or Social Security taxes, in order to receive benefits), the program really is, and always has been, what its name implies: a social welfare program. And I mean welfare in its broadest term – something intended to help the most people for the good of the country as a whole.And when it comes to benefits for a spouse, the litmus test for eligibility has always been about “dependency.” In other words, you don’t collect benefits as a spouse just because you were married to someone – as might be the case in a straight insurance program. Under Social Security rules, you get benefits as a spouse because you were financially dependent on your husband or wife.When Social Security first started in the 1930s, most women were not working outside the home. So, they had no income of their own and no potential pensions of their own. They were totally dependent on their husband’s income while he was working, and they were dependent on his Social Security when he retired. That’s why for many years, most women collected only spousal benefits – a wife’s benefits while the husband was alive and a widow’s benefits once he died.But as more and more women went to work, they started having their own income and started earning their own pensions – and their own Social Security retirement benefits. In other words, they became less financially dependent on their husband’s income, and they became less financially dependent on their husband’s Social Security.Today, the law says that as a general rule, you always receive your own Social Security benefit first. And it’s only after that benefit is paid that the Social Security Administration can look to your husband’s record to see if your monthly benefit can be supplemented. A wife whose husband is still alive can have her benefit augmented up to one-half of her husband’s rate. A widow can get supplemented up to 100 percent of the husband’s amount. You apparently were fortunate enough to have a good job with a good income, and you obviously made even more money than your husband. That’s why your Social Security is more than his and why you don’t qualify for widow’s benefits.But there are still many women who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t, couldn’t or weren’t allowed (by their husbands) to work outside the home. Or they worked, but they took a lot of time off to raise kids. Or they worked at jobs that didn’t pay very much. And many of these women will qualify for some supplemental benefits on their husband’s record. That’s because they are still (at least partially) financially dependent on their husband.And I’m not sure why you seem to hold this grudge against divorced woman. You may not know it, but in the early days of the program, divorced women didn’t collect Social Security. And that was totally unfair. There were many tragic stories of women who were married for 30 or 40 years. And then, just as they were pushing 60, the husband would divorce his wife and marry a younger woman – leaving his first wife totally out in the cold when it came time for Social Security.Today, a divorced woman who has not remarried and was married to her ex for at least 10 years qualifies for the same kind of benefits as a married woman. So, if she worked and earned her own Social Security benefit, she might only receive that amount. But if she were wholly or partially dependent on her ex, then she’d probably qualify for wife’s or widow’s benefits.Here’s one final way to look at this whole spouse and dependency situation. Suppose Congress removed the dependency laws from Social Security’s books. Well, then you would be entitled to widow’s benefits on your husband’s record – in addition to your own retirement payments. And I’m sure you’d be happy. But then why wouldn’t everybody be due the same?For example, should I get a husband’s benefit on my wife’s Social Security record, even though I already collect a very comfortable retirement pension that’s much higher than her Social Security retirement payment? And for that matter, when Bill Gates reaches retirement age, should we pay him spousal benefits on his wife’s Social Security account? If you can get it, why can’t we?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 read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM.
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