Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – Should I take my widower benefit now?

Published 3:09 pm Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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

Dear Rusty: I lost my wife 7 years ago. I was told that I could possibly collect 30 to 35% of her benefit as a widower benefit when I turned 60. I will be 61 soon. Would it make sense to pursue this if it is true? I am still working full time. Would this affect my ability to collect Social Security on my own account once I retire? Signed: Working Survivor

Dear Working: Survivor benefits for a widower can be paid as early as age 60 if you have not remarried prior to that. But collecting a survivor benefit before you have reached your full retirement age (your “FRA”, which is age 67) creates some other considerations you should be aware of:

  • Your survivor benefit will be based upon the SS benefit your wife was entitled to at her death. Taken at your FRA you’d get 100% of the SS amount your wife was entitled to at her death, but if taken any earlier than your FRA the survivor benefit will be reduced.
  • Taken before your FRA, your survivor benefit will be actuarially reduced according to the number of months prior to your FRA it is claimed. The reduction amount is 4.75% less per full year earlier than your FRA, and that is a permanent reduction. If you take your survivor benefit at age 61, you’ll get 71.5% of the SS benefit your wife had earned up to her death.
  • Since you’re not yet receiving your own SS retirement benefit, you can take your survivor benefit first and allow your personal SS retirement benefit to grow. Assuming your personal SS retirement benefit will be more than your survivor benefit, you can switch from your survivor benefit to your SS retirement benefit at any time after you are age-eligible to do so (age 62). You can also, if you wish, choose to continue your survivor benefit up until your personal SS retirement benefit reaches maximum at age 70. At age 70 your own benefit will be 24% more than your FRA benefit amount.
  • If you claim the survivor benefit before your FRA and you are still working, you’ll be subject to Social Security’s “earnings test” which limits how much you can earn before SS takes away some of your benefit. The earnings limit for 2021 is $18,960 (the 2022 limit is $19,560) and if your earnings from work exceed that amount, SS will take back benefits equal to $1 for every $2 you are over the limit.
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So, although you can claim a survivor benefit from your deceased wife now (and allow your own SS benefit to grow), practically speaking you may not be able to get a survivor benefit if you are working full time and earning considerably more than the annual earnings limit. In other words, the penalty for exceeding the earnings limit may entirely offset the survivor benefit you are entitled to. If you’re over the earnings limit by only a small amount, you’ll only lose benefits for the number of months needed to repay what you owe. And for clarity, in the year you attain FRA the earnings limit goes up by about 2.5 times and the penalty is less ($1 for every $3 you are over the limit), and once you reach your full retirement age there is no longer a limit to how much you can earn. To avoid the earnings test, you could also choose to wait until your FRA to maximize your survivor benefit and then wait until age 70 to claim your maximum SS retirement benefit.

Regardless of when you claim your survivor benefit, your own SS retirement benefit won’t be affected. Your SS retirement benefit, which will replace your smaller survivor benefit, will be based solely on your lifetime earnings history and the age at which you claim it.