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Ask Rusty – Will my widow’s benefit replace my own SS?

Dear Rusty: My husband is 76, retired for four years, and receiving Social Security. I am only 59 and still working. We are both in good health and I’d like to think we still have many years to enjoy retirement. My question: Is it true that if I start SS at 62, I can switch to my husband’s SS when he passes? If this is true (and his amount is slightly higher than my FRA amount), wouldn’t it make sense for me to begin collecting at 62? Signed: Younger Spouse

 

Dear Younger Spouse: Yes, it is true that if you start your reduced personal SS benefit at age 62, and your husband (collecting a benefit higher than your own) predeceases you, you can switch to his higher benefit amount. But there are some other factors which come into play when dealing with survivor benefits, especially with an age difference:

  • You must be at least 60 years old to claim your survivor benefit (or 50 if you are disabled).
  • Your survivor benefit will be reduced if you haven’t yet reached your own full retirement age (FRA) when you claim it. The reduction is 4.75% for each full year earlier than your FRA that you claim the survivor benefit.
  • You do not need to take your survivor benefit immediately upon your husband’s death. Your survivor benefit as your husband’s widow reaches maximum at your FRA, and you can choose to delay claiming your widow’s benefit until you reach your FRA (to get the maximum amount).
  • If you claim any SS benefit before your FRA (your own or your survivor benefit), and you are working, you’ll be subject to Social Security’s “earnings test” which limits how much you can earn before SS takes back some of your benefits.

Considering the above, if your eventual benefit as your husband’s widow will be the highest benefit you will be entitled to, then claiming your personal SS benefit at age 62 may be a prudent strategy. It allows you to collect your own benefit earlier (albeit reduced) until your higher survivor benefit kicks in to replace the smaller amount. However, your plans for working prior to your full retirement age are key to deciding if you should claim benefits earlier. If you exceed the earnings limit ($18,960 for 2021), SS will take away some of your benefits, which could mean you go without benefits until they recover what you owe. Indeed, if your earnings are high enough, you may find that you would get no SS benefits because the amount you owe for exceeding the earnings limit would completely offset your Social Security benefit.

So, as you can see, if you are working with a high income, the earnings limit might imply that waiting until your FRA to claim any SS benefit is the smartest move. But if you don’t work after you claim SS then taking your own benefit early and later switching to your higher widow’s benefit at or after your FRA would be a sound choice.

 

This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at ssadvisor@amacfoundation.org.