We determined that 16 of the 100 widows in our sample
were receiving survivors benefits, but were eligible for higher retirement
benefits. Nine of the widows returned to SSA field offices at or
before age 65 and applied for retirement benefits. The remaining
seven did not apply for retirement benefits, so we asked SSA field
staff to contact them. The staff contacted six of the seven widows
and, as a result, all applied for the higher retirement benefit.
The other person had died before contact was initiated. The widows
were due increased monthly benefits of $5 to $83, with
an average benefit increase of $40 or 15.7 percent.
We also asked that the SSA staff contacting the six widows determine
why they had not applied for the higher retirement benefit. The widows
stated that they either did not remember or did not understand what
was said to them regarding potential retirement benefits when they
applied for survivors benefits. As examples, one widow replied that
she was so upset at the time that she remembered nothing. Another
individual said that she thought that once she filed it was forever;
she never knew she could switch to retirement benefits. All six widows
replied that they were not contacted near their 65th birthday regarding
We found evidence that SSA had informed three of the six widows
about reapplying for retirement benefits, when they applied for survivors
benefits. One individual, when questioned, said that if she was informed
about retirement when she first applied for benefits, she did not
remember and did not understand she needed to reapply. There was
evidence in two other case folders that widows were told at the time
of application to return to the field office and reapply for retirement
benefits at age 65.
SSA has procedures for employees to explain to beneficiaries that
survivors benefits do not include retirement benefits. Surviving
spouses also sign applications which include a statement that retirement
benefits were not included in the survivor`s application. When
a surviving spouse applies for survivors benefits after age 62,
it is more likely that retirement benefits will be discussed because
they are also eligible at that time for reduced retirement benefits.
However, if a surviving spouse files an application between age 60
and 62, it is possible that retirement benefits may not be discussed
because at the time of the application, he or she may not be eligible
In any case, SSA procedures place the responsibility for filing
the application for retirement benefits on the surviving spouse.
It is apparent from our sample results that a significant portion
of these beneficiaries do not apply for retirement long after filing
for survivors benefits. The SSA should identify and provide assistance
to these individuals.
The SSA has established a system to alert the field offices when
beneficiaries need to be contacted in the future. However, our sample
indicated that this system was ineffective. We found documentation
that diary alerts were made only in 3 of the 16 sampled case folders
for widows eligible for higher retirement benefits. One of the documents
was in a widows folder who had applied for retirement and two
from widows who did not.
There are several reasons why this SSA process is not effective.
First, the diary must be processed manually and is up to 5 years
old when SSA needs to take action. These contribute to errors and
delays in the alert process. Second, the diary may not be established
for surviving spouses who applied before age 62 and were not
eligible for retirement under their own record. However, if the widow
is working, they may be eligible for retirement in the future and
a new benefit comparison will be necessary at a later time.
Last, SSA does not have the systems capability of monitoring potential
retirement benefits for widowed beneficiaries. SSA lacks the ability
to calculate the potential retirement benefit, compare the survivors
and retirement benefits, and send a notice to those who should apply
for higher retirement benefits.
The SSA has the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement
(PEBES) that is used to inform individuals of potential retirement
benefits at age 65. The SSA originally intended to send statements
to title II beneficiaries who were not receiving benefits on
their own earnings. This would have included the widows we identified.
However, SSA decided not to issue these statements due to budget
and workload considerations. This decision excludes surviving spouses
on survivors benefits from receiving a PEBES notifying them of potentially
higher retirement benefits.
WOMEN IN THE WORK FORCE
number of women affected by this potential loss of retirement benefits
will increase in future years due to the increase in the number of
women working. The last 30 years have seen a significant increase,
according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract
of the United States: 1995. In 1960, 21.9 million
women worked. By 1990, the number more than doubled to 53 million
working women. It is inevitable that the number of women who will
be eligible for retirement benefits will continue to increase in
the future. Widows may continue to receive lower benefits than they
are eligible for unless they are advised of the alternatives. The
SSA needs to inform surviving spouses of their potential retirement
benefits and the need for a separate retirement application.
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