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Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – Am I able to collect late husband’s benefits even though we were only married a short time?

By AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor Russell Gloor, Association of Mature American Citizens     

Dear Rusty: My husband and I were only married five years before he passed away from cancer. I am 61 and was told by SS that I don’t qualify to receive his survivor benefits because we weren’t married long enough, and because I made more money than him when he was alive. I still work full time and plan to continue until my full retirement age. Am I able to collect any of his benefits? Why can his daughter collect his benefits, but I cannot? Signed: Frustrated Widow

Dear Frustrated: You were given partially incorrect information by Social Security because you were married long enough to collect a survivor benefit, but there are also other rules which might affect your eligibility:

  • You cannot have remarried before age 60 and be currently married.
  • You cannot collect full survivor benefits if you exceed Social Security’s annual “earnings limit.” That you made more money than your husband (and are presumably entitled to a higher personal SS benefit) isn’t material, but your earnings from work could be.

If you didn’t remarry before age 60 and remain married, and if you don’t earn too much money, you are eligible to collect a survivor benefit as your husband’s widow. You can even claim your survivor benefit (only) while allowing your personal SS benefit to grow (if desired, up to age 70 when it reaches maximum). So, you may be eligible to collect a survivor benefit from your husband now, but if you’re working full time, you may make too much money to be able to collect it at this time.

Social Security has an “earnings test” which applies to those collecting early benefits and which limits how much you can earn before they take benefits away. For 2021, the annual earnings limit is $18,960 and if you earn more than that they will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 you are over the limit. That could mean you’ll owe them more than you’re entitled to in benefits, which would mean no benefits would be paid. Here’s an example: Say you make $60,000 per year working full time. If you collect the survivor benefit and because you haven’t yet reached your full retirement age (FRA), you’ll be subject to the earnings limit of $18,960. At this earnings level you would exceed the limit by about $41,000. Half of that amount would be about $20,500, and SS would require you to repay them that amount from your SS benefits. Depending upon your survivor benefit amount, that could disqualify you from receiving monthly benefits.

As you can see from this example, if you work full time but do not significantly exceed the annual earnings limit, you may be able to collect at least some of your survivor benefits, but I cannot answer that without knowing your annual earnings and approximately what your survivor benefit would be. For clarity, the earnings test no longer applies once you reach your full retirement age.

Regarding your husband’s daughter collecting a survivor benefit from him: a surviving minor child of the deceased can collect a survivor benefit until they are 18 (or 19 if still in high school). An adult disabled child who was disabled before age 22 is also eligible to collect a survivor benefit from a deceased parent.

So, let’s recap: you were married to your husband long enough to be eligible for a survivor benefit, but you may have significant earnings which disqualify you from receiving those benefits right now. There is no longer an “earnings test” once you reach your FRA (66 years and 10 months), so at your FRA you could collect your full survivor benefit. And you could collect your survivor benefit only first and allow your own personal SS benefit to grow until you are 70 when it would be more than your survivor benefit. At that time, you would switch to your own benefit which would be about 25% more than your FRA benefit amount.

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