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Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – When should I claim my survivor benefit?

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

Dear Rusty: My wife passed away in 2014. I’m 60 years old and have been retired since August 2020. I know I’m entitled to survivor benefits, but my question relates to when to file for them. To say the information online is confusing is an understatement. Some background. My wife was born in 1960 and would have turned 62 next year. I was born in 1960 and turned 60 this past April. I do not plan on taking my SS until age 67 (I could wait until age 70 if it is more beneficial). I have not remarried. When should I file for survivor benefits to maximize the benefit? Signed: Surviving Husband

Dear Surviving Husband: Survivor benefits reach maximum when you reach your full retirement age (67), but you can claim a reduced survivor benefit as early as age 60. The amount of your survivor benefit will be determined by a) the benefit your wife had earned up to the month she passed, and b) your age when you claim the survivor benefit. At age 67 you would get 100% of the amount your wife was entitled to when she passed; if you claim at age 60 you would only get 71.5% of the benefit amount your wife had earned up to her death. The reduction may, or may not be, acceptable to you depending on your personal circumstances.

First, you should be aware that if you claim your survivor benefit before your full retirement age (FRA) and return to work, you’ll be subject to Social Security’s earnings test which limits how much you can earn before SS takes away some of your benefits. The earnings limit for 2021 is $18,960 (changes annually) and if that is exceeded SS will take back benefits equal to $1 for every $2 you are over the limit. The earnings limit applies until you reach your full retirement age, although the limit is much higher and the penalty less severe in the year you attain FRA. If your earnings prior to your FRA are high enough, it could disqualify you from receiving a survivor benefit. Of course, if you are not working and do not plan to return to work, the earnings test is not a concern.

Assuming you are fully retired from working, here are some things to consider:

  • Claiming your survivor benefit now at age 60 would permit you to receive 71.5% of the survivor benefit for at least 7 years (until you reach your FRA), or perhaps longer until you are 70. Although the survivor benefit would be reduced, claiming it at age 60 would also permit you to delay taking your own Social Security benefit until age 70 when your personal benefit would be 24% more than it will be at your FRA. The above would be prudent if your age 70 (or 67) benefit amount will be higher than the survivor benefit you would be entitled to at your full retirement age.
  • If your survivor benefit at your FRA would be more than your own benefit will be at age 70, then it would be wisest to maximize your survivor benefit. To maximize your survivor benefit you must wait until age 67 (your FRA) to claim it. If your full survivor benefit will be the highest you can get, then maximizing it by waiting until your FRA to claim it is your smartest move.

So, as you can see, you have a choice of when to claim your survivor benefit. If your personal benefit at age 70 would be higher, it would be wise to claim your survivor benefit first (at age 60) and collect the reduced survivor benefit until you later switch to your own higher benefit. But if your survivor benefit at maximum would be more than your age 70 benefit, then waiting until your full retirement age of 67 to claim your survivor benefit would be your best choice.

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