Dear Rusty: I have two questions. My wife passed away in May of 2015, and I never received any of her benefits. Should I have? Also, I am now 62, turning 63 next month. I am still working and probably won’t quit until age 75 or older. Should I start taking benefits now? Signed: Bewildered
Dear Bewildered: As a widower, you could have started receiving a survivor benefit from your wife at 60 years of age, though it would have been reduced by about 28.5% for claiming early. But you haven’t really lost those benefits because you can still claim them, and they won’t be reduced as much now because you’d be claiming closer to your widower’s full retirement age (FRA) of 66. In your specific case, your “widower FRA” is 4 months earlier than your normal FRA of 66 plus 4 months, because a survivor’s FRA is determined by subtracting 2 years from their actual birth date. Since you were born in 1956, Social Security uses 1954 as the date to determine your FRA for survivor benefits.
Since you are now 62 (turning 63 soon), you have a choice to collect either your own benefit or your survivor benefit, and which one you should choose depends upon which one would be highest when it reaches maximum. Your survivor benefit will reach its maximum when you reach your widower FRA; your own benefit will reach its maximum at age 70. You might choose to collect your survivor benefit first and allow your own benefit to grow until you are 70 when it would be about 29% more than it would be at your normal FRA. Or, if your survivor benefit at your widower FRA would be more, you could choose to take your own benefit until your survivor benefit reaches maximum at your widower FRA.
But there is one catch you should consider. Any time Social Security benefits of any kind are taken before one’s full retirement age and you continue to work, you will be subject to Social Security’s “earnings test.” That means if your earnings from working exceed the annual earnings limit ($17,640 for 2019), Social Security will take back $1 for every $2 you are over the limit, and they’ll withhold that from future benefits until they recover what you owe. Once you reach your normal full retirement age the earnings limit goes away, and you can earn as much as you like without penalty. For clarity, when you reach your normal full retirement age they will recompute your benefit and give you time credit for any month’s benefits withheld, which will increase your benefit slightly allowing you to recover some (or eventually all) of the withheld benefits. But exceeding the annual earnings limit before your reach your normal FRA will cause you to lose current benefits for some number of months.
Provided that your finances, your health and your expected longevity allow it, and provided that your own benefit at age 70 will be more than your survivor benefit, you may want to consider a strategy of postponing your own benefit, and also delaying your claim for the survivor benefit until it reaches maximum at your widower’s FRA. Then at your widower’s FRA (66) you could claim 100% of your survivor benefit, while allowing your own benefit to grow to maximum at age 70. In this way you would avoid any lost benefits from exceeding the earnings limit, you would collect the maximum survivor benefit between your FRA and age 70, and at that time switch to your own higher benefit for the rest of your life. This, of course, is but one of several scenarios you have available to you being dually-entitled to both survivor benefits and your own Social Security retirement benefit.
This article is intended for information purposes only.