Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – Can a working widow collect survivor benefits?

Published 12:19 pm Thursday, December 15, 2022

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

Dear Rusty: I’m 63 and still employed. My husband passed away 7 years ago at the age of 58. Am I able to collect my husband’s Social Security while I’m still working? Signed: Working Widow

Dear Working Widow: Technically at age 63 you’re eligible to collect a survivor benefit from your husband but, since you’re working, we need to dig a bit deeper.

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Any time benefits are taken before reaching full retirement age, Social Security’s earnings test applies. The earnings test limits how much you can earn from working before they take away some (or even all) of your Social Security benefits. If your annual earnings for 2023 will be more than $21,240, then Social Security will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 you are over that limit. If you earn substantially more than the limit, that could even temporarily disqualify you from eligibility to collect your survivor benefit (because your benefit amount may be insufficient to offset the penalty for exceeding the limit). So, if you’re working part time and will not exceed the limit or only slightly exceed it, then you can claim your survivor benefit from your husband now and simply pay the penalty from your benefits. But if you’re working full time and will exceed the annual limit by a lot, then you may wish to defer claiming your survivor benefit until you either reach your full retirement age (FRA) or stop working.

If you turned 63 in 2022, your FRA is 66 years and 10 months, and the earnings test applies until you reach that age. Four months earlier is when your survivor benefit from your husband will reach maximum (claimed any earlier it will be reduced by 4.75% per full year early). So, what should you do? I suggest you look at your own estimated maximum (age 70) benefit and compare that to your maximum survivor benefit from your husband. You should strive to maximize whichever benefit will be highest and claim that maximum benefit for the rest of your life. For example, if your survivor benefit at your FRA will be more than your personal age 70 benefit will be, then it would be smart to wait until your FRA to claim your survivor benefit and collect that for the rest of your life. If, instead, your personal age 70 benefit will be higher than your maximum survivor benefit at your FRA, then you may wish to claim the survivor benefit first and allow your personal benefit to reach maximum and switch to your own higher benefit at age 70.

In any case, because you’re working you must be careful of the earnings limit until you reach your full retirement age. The earnings limit goes up a bit each year, and in the year that you reach your FRA it goes way up (by about 2.5 times) and the penalty is less. There is no longer an earnings limit once you reach your full retirement age, but if you decide to claim Social Security before your FRA you should stay keenly aware of whether your earnings will exceed each year’s annual limit.