By Tom Margenau

Q: My husband died in 2009. I continued working until I was 62 in 2013. I then started drawing widow’s benefits. In February of this year, when I turned 66, I went to the Social Security office to apply for my own benefits. I thought I could get both retirement and widow’s benefits. But they told me no. They said I could only receive my own benefit because it was higher. Is this correct? It doesn’t seem fair. By the way, I was getting $1,870 in widow’s benefits until I switched to $2,120 in my own retirement.

A: It is correct. And I believe you’ll think it’s fair once I explain it to you. Also, at the end of my answer, I’m going to give you another Social Security option that’s available to you.

As a general rule, if you are due two Social Security benefits, you don’t get them both. You only get the one that pays the higher rate. Although frequently a widow will get benefits off of two records, if her own benefit is less than her husband’s. For example, let’s switch your benefit rates. Let’s say you were due $1,870 in retirement benefits and $2,120 in widow’s benefits. In that case, they would pay your own $1,870 benefit first. Then they would give you $250 in widow’s benefit to take you up to your husband’s $2,120 rate. In other words, you’re technically getting benefits off of two accounts. In reality, you’re really just getting a widow’s benefit rate of $2,120.

But in your case, your own benefit exceeds what you are due on your husband’s account, so you simply get your own higher retirement benefit.

As far as the fairness of getting only the higher benefit, think of it this way: Benefits for spouses and widows(ers) are legally considered “dependent” benefits. You normally would get a spousal benefit only if you were financially dependent on your husband. But you had your own job. And it must have been a better paying job than your husband had because you get a bigger Social Security benefit. So you were not dependent on him while you were working. And now that you are retired and getting your own higher retirement check, you shouldn’t be due any dependent benefits.

Or here is another way to think of that. If the government paid you both your own and your husband’s benefits, then every other married person in the country should be able to claim the same. I should get my own Social Security and I should get husband’s benefits on my wife’s record. And for that matter, she should get her own Social Security and get a wife’s benefits on my record. The Social Security system would go broke tomorrow if everybody in the country got both their own Social Security benefit and a spousal benefit.

And now let me tell you about the option I hinted about earlier. Instead of switching to your own retirement benefits at 66, you might have been better off waiting until age 70 to make that switch. By waiting that long, you would be due a total of 32 percent in “delayed retirement credits.” In other words, instead of getting 100 percent of your benefit at age 66, or the $2,120 you mentioned, you would get 132 percent at 70, or almost $2,800.

And it’s not too late for you to make that switch. The law allows you to change your mind and withdraw your claim up to six months after you filed. You are still within that six-month window. In other words, you could withdraw your retirement claim and switch back to your widow’s benefits. You would have to repay the difference between those rates, or $250, for the four months you’ve already received your own benefit.

So you’d have to write a check for $1,000 as part of the withdrawal process. And if you think you can live on that $1,870 widow’s benefits for the next four years, you’d then start getting a $2,800 retirement check with the extra credits. You will just have to sit down with a good calculator and do the math and decide if it’s worth it.