Not surprising, money and bad advice are a deadly combination. But when that combination affects widows—even worse. It’s happening, of all places, at the Social Security Administration.

A report by the Office of the Inspector General discovered that Social Security underpaid widows $132 million dollars they were entitled to because SSA agents didn’t know the difference between filing for Social Security retirement benefits and Social Security Survivor benefits. The report says, “SSA did not have systems controls in place to alert its employees when they should inform widow(er)s of the option to delay their applications for retirement benefits.

In 2015 Social Security closed a loophole that allowed an individual to draw a Social Security check based on their spouse’s work history, allow their own retirement credits to grow until age 70, then switch to a larger check based on their own work history. When SSA closed that door, it instituted the Deemed Filing rule, which says when you file for retirement benefits you are deemed to be filing for all the benefits due you at the time of your claim. 82% of SSA agents were telling widows they couldn’t file for survivor benefits and then later switch to retirement benefits. But Deemed Filing rules don’t apply to survivor benefits.

According to the Inspector General’s Report, “Deemed filing applies to retirement benefits, not survivor’s benefits. So, if you are a widow or widower, you may start your survivor benefit independently of your retirement benefit if you restrict the scope of your application.”

The report goes on to say 82% of widow(er)s sampled were eligible for a higher monthly benefit amount if they had filed for Survivor benefits only and delayed their retirement application until age 70. “SSA needs to improve controls to ensure it informs widow(er) beneficiaries of their option to delay their application for retirement benefits.”

There are 567 ways to collect Social Security. It’s complex. One size does not fit all. Before you file for benefits make sure you know what’s available for your situation. When I was in school my parents told me to check, recheck, and double-check my answers. That’s good advice when it comes to Social Security benefits too.

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