Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

The Widow(er)'s Limit Provision of Social Security

Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

The Widow(er)'s Limit Provision of Social Security

Article excerpt

Summary

Widow benefits have been a part of the Social Security program since the 1939 amendments to the Social Security Act (widower benefits were added later). For many years, the Social Security law called for paying a widow(er) a fraction of the deceased worker's primary insurance amount (PIA). However, the worker-while alive-may have received the full PIA as his or her retirement benefit. Over time, arguments were made that a widow(er) should be treated as generously as his or her spouse was.

The 1972 amendments to the Social Security Act allowed for a widow(er) to receive a full PIA, subject to actuarial reductions if the widow(er) benefit was claimed before the normal retirement age (NRA) and subject to a new provision of the law commonly referred to as the widow(er)'s limit. Generally, the widow(er)'s limit specifies that if a worker received reduced retirement benefits (because the worker claimed benefits before the NRA), then the worker's widow(er) cannot receive a monthly benefit equal to the full PIA. Rather, the widow(er)'s benefit is generally limited to the amount the worker would receive if he or she was still alive. The limit provision appears to be motivated by the overall intent of the 1972 Congress to pay a benefit to a

widow(er) that was comparable with what the worker received.

A number of changes to the limit provision have been discussed. This article looks at the following options:

* Abolishing the limit,

* Raising the limit by requiring that it never be set below the average PIA among all retired-worker beneficiaries,

* Adjusting the limit for some widow(er)s-that is, only persons who are widowed before the NRA (the ARLA option),

* Making a simpler adjustment to the limit by abolishing it for persons who are widowed before age 62 (the SARLA option), and

* A proposal by Robert J. Myers that would make modest adjustments to the limit for cases in which the worker died before the NRA.

The most fundamental change-- abolishing the limit-would increase benefits for about 2.8 million widow(er)s and would cost about $3.1 billion a year. Most of the additional government expenditures would not go to the poor and the near poor. Another change would be more successful in aiding low-income widow(er)s: requiring that the limit amount never be set below the average PIA among all retired--

worker beneficiaries. About 58 percent of the government expenditures from that option would be received by the poor and the near poor. Overall, 1.2 million widow(er)s would be helped, and the cost would be about $816 million a year.

Although the limit provision is consistent with the overall intent of the 1972 Congress, it can have effects that may have been unintended and that some policymakers might consider unusual. Persons who delay receipt of Social Security benefits usually receive higher monthly benefit amounts, but a widow(er) who faces a limit cannot increase his or her monthly benefit through delayed receipt of benefits. Thus, many persons who are widowed before the NRA face strong incentives to claim benefits early. That is somewhat unusual because the actuarial adjustments under Social Security are approximately fair, so there are no cost savings to the Social Security program from "forcing" a widow(er) to claim early benefits as opposed to allowing him or her to delay receipt of benefits in exchange for a higher monthly amount. And many widow(er)s would be better off if they could use the Social Security program to, in effect, save (that is, delay receipt of benefits in exchange for a higher amount later).

This article analyzes two other options that would provide widow(er)s with additional filing options under Social Security. The ARLA option would ultimately help about 229,000 widow(er)s, and the cost would be small (about $69 million a year). The SARLA option would help about 117,000 widow(er)s, and the cost would be about $41 million a year. …

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