Social Security and Viagra: A case of accidental death and widows benefits

BY Laurence Kotlikoff  August 11, 2014 at 12:05 PM EST
There are exceptions to exceptions to Social Security rules, so make sure you run your situation by a technical expert. Photo by Steve Cole/E+ via Getty.

If you’re not getting the answer you want from Social Security, shop around at another local office, says Larry Kotlikoff. The interpretation of Social Security’s rules varies widely. Photo by Steve Cole/E+ via Getty.

Larry Kotlikoff’s Social Security original 34 “secrets”, his additional secrets, his Social Security “mistakes” and his Social Security gotchas have prompted so many of you to write in that we now feature “Ask Larry” every Monday. Find a complete list of his columns here. We are determined to continue it until the queries stop or we run through the particular problems of all 78 million Baby Boomers, whichever comes first. Let us know your Social Security questions. Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version.


Hypothetical Charlene Rose, who is 60-something, fell for hypothetical George Fox, who was 80-something, the moment they met — online.

George’s profile picture was so-so. Charlene’s was stunning. No surprise. She’s a former model.

George had a zest for life, despite a very weak ticker. He was also an upfront, let-it-all-out guy. His profile touted a large stockpile of Viagra, but also linked to his latest EKG.

George had run down his assets. Yet he was collecting a fat monthly check from Social Security that his next wife would inherit. Charlene was more broke — no assets and a monthly Social Security check that was paper thin.

They met at a Denny’s in Las Vegas (where they both live) at 9 a.m. last week, wolfed down two Lumberjack Slams (two buttermilk pancakes, a slice of grilled ham, two bacon strips, two sausage links, and two eggs, plus hash browns and choice of bread) and used a drive-through-wedding service to tie the knot the same day.

GOT SOCIAL SECURITY QUESTIONS?

Pose Your Questions to Larry Here

Then tragedy struck. While consummating their marriage, George’s ticker stopped ticking. Apparently, he’d overdosed on Viagra.

But before checking out, George whispered two words of lasting endearment to Charlene — “widows benefits.”

The next day Charlene headed to the local Social Security office and asked to have George’s check sent to her. No was the answer. There was an exception to the rule that wives would collect widows benefits; you needed to be married for at least nine months. Charlene was crushed. She’d been taken — by George, by Social Security, by life.

But then she decided to try a different Social Security office. The staffer at the second office asked, off the cuff, how George died. Charlene explained the circumstances.

“Hum,” said the staffer. “You know, Mrs. Fox, there is an exception to the nine-month exception. It’s for accidental death.”

“Is death by sex accidental?” asked Charlene.

“Let me check,” said the staffer, who called over one of Social Security’s technical experts.

The bemused technical expert explained the rule: “Accidental death, according to Social Security, is a bodily injury caused by an external force suffered due to weather conditions or exertion.”

“Well,” screamed Charlotte. “I was the external force and there was plenty of exertion on George’s part, trust me!”

“Works for me,” said the expert. “Let’s sign you up for your widows benefit.”

Epilogue

While the names and circumstances have been changed to protect the innocent, this is based on a true story. Jerry Lutz, the former Social Security technical expert who double checks my weekly Making Sen$e Social Security columns, faced just such a case during his long career with Social Security. And he made the call to approve the widows benefit.

So what’s the moral to the story? Social Security has rules upon rules upon rules. But in some cases, how these rules are interpreted is up for grabs. So if you don’t think you’re getting a fair interpretation, shop around at a different Social Security office.