Q: I am very concerned that I may have messed up my future widow’s benefits from Social Security. I started taking my Social Security when I was 62. I am now 68. My husband is 78 and in poor health. He is not expected to live much longer. Will I get reduced widow’s benefits because I took my own retirement benefits early (before my full retirement age)?

A: No, you did not mess up your potential widow’s benefits. How much your widow’s benefits will be depends on one thing only: How old you are when you become a widow. As long as you are over 66, you will get 100 percent of whatever your husband was getting at the time of his death. Or to clarify that, you will get the difference between what you are already getting and what he is getting added to your reduced retirement benefit. 

Here is a quick example. Let’s say that when he dies, he is getting $1,900 per month and you are getting $1,300 per month. After his death, you will continue to receive your own $1,300 benefit, and you will get an extra $600 from your husband’s record, giving you a total monthly rate of $1,900.

Q: My husband died on Dec. 28 of last year. I was very upset when I learned the bank returned the Social Security check he got on Jan. 3. I have bills to pay and I needed that money!

A: As I’ve explained many times in this column, Social Security checks have never been prorated. The law says you must be alive an entire month to be eligible for the Social Security check due for that month. The check that was sent on Jan. 3 was his December Social Security payment. And sadly, he was not alive the entire month of December.

There are two issues that may help you feel better about the lack of proration of Social Security benefits. One is that when his benefits first started, he got a check for the entire month, even though he might not have been 

eligible for the whole month. For example, if he filed at age 66, and if his birthday was not until later in the month, he got a check for the entire month of his 66th birthday.

And the more important and current issue is your possible eligibility for widow’s benefits. You didn’t say if you were due benefits or not. But if you are, you will get a widow’s check for the entire month of December, even though you were a widow for only three days of the month.

Q: My husband is under hospice care. When he passes on, do I have to apply for widow’s benefits? Or will the Social Security people simply start paying me those benefits once they learn of his death?

A: It depends. If you are currently receiving benefits as a wife on his Social Security record, then they will automatically convert you to widow’s benefits, and pay you the little $255 death benefit, once they get proof that your husband has died. The reason they can make that automatic conversion is because they already have all the information they need about you in their files. 

But if you are getting your own Social Security retirement benefits, or you are not yet getting any Social Security, then you would have to file a claim for widow’s benefits — assuming you meet all the eligibility requirements. Even if you are not eligible for widow’s benefits (for example, if you are not old enough or if you are under age 66 and still working full-time) then you should still file for the small one-time death benefit.

Q: My wife has always made more money than me, and now she gets a higher Social Security benefit than I do. If she dies before I do, would I qualify for widower’s benefits?

A: Yes, you would, assuming you meet all the eligibility requirements. Almost all Social Security rules are gender-neutral. That means that dependent husbands can qualify for widower’s benefits in the same way that dependent wives qualify for widow’s benefits.

Q: Please help me understand something that has always puzzled me. I am a widow and get widow’s benefits from Social Security. My Medicare card has my husband’s Social Security number on it with a “D” code behind it. My neighbor is also a widow and gets widow’s benefits as I do. Yet her Medicare card has her own Social Security number on it with an “A” code. Why can’t I get a Medicare card with my own number on it?

A: You must be getting straight widow’s benefits from Social Security. So you are claiming benefits on your husband’s record and nothing else. That means your Social Security “claim number” and your matching Medicare number have to be the number upon which you are claiming Social Security and Medicare benefits. So that is why your Medicare card has your husband’s Social Security number on it. The “D” code is Social Security’s symbol for widow’s benefits.

On the other hand, your neighbor is probably getting a combination of her own Social Security with some supplemental widow’s benefits — as explained in the example used in the answer to the first question in today’s column. In those situations, the person’s own Social Security number is the primary number. So her claim number, and matching Medicare number, is her own Social Security number with an “A” code behind it. “A” is Social Security’s symbol for retirement benefits.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net.