En español | Q. My wife is 16 years younger than I am. If I die tomorrow, will she get my full Social Security benefit or will she have to wait until she reaches a certain age?
A. Well, you haven't told us your age or your wife's age, so it's difficult to know what may happen in your case. However, the Social Security folks operate under some pretty clear rules that indicate she may have to wait.
The basic rule is that a widow can receive a 100 percent survivor benefit — essentially her husband's basic Social Security payment — if she waits until her full retirement age before beginning benefits. That age is now 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954. Full retirement age is gradually increasing for people born in later years, and will reach 67 for birthdates in 1960 and later.
However, a widow can take a reduced benefit as early as age 60 — and depending on her age at the time that she applies, she would receive between 71 percent and 99 percent of her husband's basic benefit. If a widow is disabled, she can take her benefit as early as age 50.
In addition, a widow can receive reduced benefits at any age if she is taking care of your child and the child is eligible for Social Security benefits and is younger than 16 or disabled.
And if you leave behind any unmarried children who are younger than 18 (or up to 19 if they are attending elementary or secondary school full time), they could also receive benefits. Children disabled before age 22 can get benefits on the record of a retired worker just as a surviving child can.
Under certain circumstances, your stepchildren, grandchildren, stepgrandchildren or adopted children also could receive benefits.
By the way, Social Security is gender-blind on these issues. Everything mentioned above would also apply to a man seeking a widower's benefit.
Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.