Q: My dad passed away at 67 and my mother claimed a widow’s benefit, at 65 based on his account. Now she’s over age 70, and she’s having trouble making ends meet. She worked for 30 years for a large company. Is there anything she can do to boost her benefit?
A: Maybe. Since your mom was entitled to both a widow’s benefit, and her own retirement benefit, there may be a factor affecting her benefit that she needs to be aware of. A recent audit report from the Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General found that the Social Security Administration (SSA) failed to tell 82% of widows or widowers, at the time when they applied for benefits, that they could switch to a higher retirement benefit later. The report said that 9,224 widows and widowers age 70 and above were underpaid approximately $131.8 billion, which works out to be an astonishing $14,288 per person, on average!
Normally when an individual files for Social Security benefits, the application includes all the benefits for which the claimant is entitled — in your mother’s case, survivors and retirement benefits. SSA employees determine eligibility for the benefits, and should have explained the benefit options that your mother had. They then must document the decision in the SSA system.
The SSA should have told your mother that she had the option to delay one of her benefits (usually the higher of the two) until age 70 to allow it to grow to its maximum. If she did not opt to “restrict” her benefit to one or the other, she may be getting a “combined” benefit. For example if she was entitled to a monthly $1,000 widow’s benefit and an $800 monthly retirement benefit, the SSA would pay her $1,000, consisting of $800 for her own retirement benefit and $200 for the widow’s benefit. While individuals cannot receive the full amount for both, beneficiaries are entitled to the amount of the higher of the two benefits, or $1,000.
However, had your mother opted for a “restricted” application in which she delayed her own retirement benefit, she could have received the $1,000 widow’s benefit until age 70 and then switched to her own maximum retirement benefit if higher. According to the Inspector General’s audit, when the 9,224 claimants applied for benefits, the SSA should have informed them of the option to delay their retirement application up to age 70. The Inspector General, however, did not find any evidence that SSA employees had informed the claimants or documented the filing decision in the Agency’s automated system as required.
If you and your mother feel she may have been affected by the lack of correct advice, you should bring it up with the Social Security Administration. If you think something went wrong, ask to see what documentation the SSA has in its system regarding the advice she received on her options. If your mom was not advised correctly, or if you discover there is no documentation of your mother having declined the advice to allow her own retirement benefit to grow, ask an SSA customer service representative what recourse she has. Document your meetings with the SSA. If you and your mother are not satisfied, contact the constituent services staffer for your U.S. Representative. Every Member of Congress has staffers who help resolve problems concerning Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Sources: “Higher Benefits For Dually Entitled Widow(er)s Had They Delayed Applying For Retirement Benefits,” Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General, February 2018, A-09-18-50559. “Social Security Underpaid 82% Of Dually Entitled Widows And Widowers,” Mary Beth Franklin, Investment News, February 16, 2018.