I am asking a general question for an elderly neighbor. She is currently widowed and collecting her deceased husband's benefit. We were discussing finances when I brought up that I was collecting a spousal benefit in addition to my own because I didn't work for many years while raising children. She told me that she never knew of a spousal benefit and even though she didn't work for many years she only collected her own benefit while her husband was living. I'm wondering if she was underpaid for those years while her husband was living, only getting her own benefit when she should have also collected a spousal benefit. If so, would Social Security correct this error and pay her any due back payment of spousal benefits? It has been several years since her husband passed. If Social Security would pay the back benefits I would help her go to the Social Security office to start the process as she is on a very tight budget and any back payment would help her tremendously.
Thank you in advance for any information you can provide.
Your neighbor would only have qualified for spousal benefits if 50% of her husband's full retirement age rate (PIA) was higher than her own full retirement age rate when her husband was still living.
For example, say Mary is drawing full retirement benefits on her own record in the amount of $1000. Mary's husband would then have to be receiving his benefits and have a full retirement age rate of more than $2000 in order for Mary to potentially qualify for spousal benefits.
Obviously I don't have enough information about your neighbors case to know if she could have qualified for spousal benefits, but even if she did it's unlikely that she could claim them at this point in time. When you file for benefits after full retirement age, you can normally claim benefits for no more than 6 months prior to the month that you file your application. Therefore, the only way that your neighbor could be paid spousal benefits dating back to when her husband was living is if there was some sort of protective filing date or open application involved.
For example, say Mary's husband was drawing his full retirement age benefit rate of $2400 when Mary filed for her full retirement age rate of $1000. Mary would be eligible for an excess spousal benefit of $200 in this example (i.e. $2400/2 - $1000), but if she failed to file for spousal benefits due to some oversight it's possible that the spousal benefits would never have been paid. However, if the error was later discovered, Mary could still claim any back pay due because her application for retirement benefits would have also been considered as an open application for spousal benefits.
Frankly, though, oversights such as the one described in the example above very rarely occur, so it's probably unlikely that something like that would apply in your neighbor's case. Before going to a lot of trouble, your neighbor might want to first call Social Security and ask them for the amounts of her own PIA (primary insurance amount) and her husband's PIA. If her own PIA is more than half as much as her husband's PIA, that would almost certainly rule out the possibility of your neighbor qualifying for any retroactive spousal benefits.