Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – Why can’t I collect survivor benefits from my deceased wife?

Published 5:50 pm Sunday, July 30, 2023

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

Dear Rusty: I am a 62-year-old widower that is still working full time. While my late spouse was in hospice, I was able to get her to apply for Social Security disability and she received one payment before she passed away two years ago. I was told that I could collect a survivor benefit, so I called my local Social Security office, but they told me that I could not collect any type of benefits from my wife and that all the money she paid into Social Security for all of those years was basically gone for good. Would you please advise what I can do and if this is true? I was also told that Social Security’s agents will do everything they can to avoid paying out benefits. Signed: Frustrated Widower

Dear Frustrated Widower: I suspect that the reason Social Security said you were not eligible for benefits as a widower is because you are working full time. At age 62, you are subject to Social Security’s “earnings test” which limits how much you can earn while collecting early Social Security benefits. The 2023 earnings limit is $21,240 and, if that is exceeded, Social Security will take away $1 in benefits for every $2 you are over the limit. If your earnings are high enough, that could make you temporarily ineligible to collect benefits until 1) your earnings are less, or 2) you reach your full retirement age (FRA) when the earnings test no longer applies.

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Assuming you have not yet claimed your personal Social Security retirement benefit, you are still eligible to collect a survivor benefit from your wife when your earnings are less or after you reach your full retirement age. One strategy you may wish to consider, if you plan to keep working full time, is to wait and claim only your surviving spouse benefit at your FRA (67), thus allowing your personal Social Security retirement benefit to continue growing until you are 70 when your personal Social Security retirement benefit will be about 75% more than it would be now. Although your survivor benefit reaches maximum at your FRA, your personal benefit doesn’t reach maximum until age 70, so it’s possible to collect your smaller survivor benefit from your wife first and claim your higher personal benefit later.

You were apparently given some confusing information when you contacted Social Security. If you haven’t already claimed your own Social Security retirement benefit, you are still eligible for a surviving spouse benefit from your wife but likely cannot collect a widower benefit at this time because you’re working full time. However, that doesn’t mean you can never collect a survivor benefit; only that you can’t collect it at this time because of the “earnings test.” The earnings test goes away when you reach age 67, so you can claim only your survivor benefit at that time (or before if you no longer work full time) and allow your personal Social Security retirement benefit to continue to grow (to age 70 if you like).

From our experience with the Social Security Administration, the skill level of SSA representatives varies but we have never suspected their goal was trying to avoid paying benefits due. Nevertheless, depending on the agent you spoke with, the information provided may have been less clear about the best claiming strategy for you – which is why the AMAC Foundation’s Social Security Advisory Service exists. Our advisors are all highly experienced and strive to provide you with complete and clear information which enables you to make an informed choice about how and when to claim the Social Security benefits you are entitled to. I hope we have succeeded.