Dear Rusty: My husband passed away at the age of 52, and I was 53. I am currently 59. I’ve read about and been encouraged to file for widow’s benefits from Social Security when I turn 60. My question is: does doing that impact when I should file for my regular Social Security benefits? In reading on any websites regarding my question, this never is addressed on what is best. Signed: Widowed Survivor
Dear Survivor: You have my sympathy for the loss of your husband at such a young age. I’ll try to clarify your options for you.
Provided you have not remarried you can claim your survivor benefit at age 60, but if you do it will be reduced by 28.5% from what it would be at your full retirement age (FRA) of 67. As long as you are explicit when claiming your survivor benefit that you are not also applying for your own Social Security benefit, there will be no negative impact to your eventual Social Security retirement benefit when you claim that. But, determining which benefit to take, and when, requires some thought.
Your goal should be to get the highest benefit possible for the rest of your life. To help you decide how and when to file, you should first see what your survivor benefit will be at your full retirement age (100% of what your husband was entitled to at his death). If that amount is more than you are entitled to on your own at age 70 then you should consider waiting until age 67 (your FRA) to claim your widow’s benefit, so you can get that higher survivor benefit for the rest of your life. Conversely, if your own age 70 benefit will be more than your widow’s benefit at your FRA, then claiming your widow’s benefit first and allowing your own benefit to grow until age 70 when it reaches maximum would be the more prudent choice. You can get estimates of both your survivor benefit and your age 70 retirement benefit by contacting Social Security. But if claiming the survivor benefit at age 60 is what you decide, or if you were to instead claim your Social Security retirement benefits early (e.g., age 62) there’s more for you to consider.
If you are collecting any Social Security benefits before you reach your full retirement age (FRA) and you are still working, you will be subject to Social Security’s “earnings limit” which restricts the amount you can earn before they take back some of your benefits (the earnings limit changes annually; for 2020 it is $18,240). Up until the year you reach your FRA, they will take back benefits equal to one half of any earnings you have over the limit. During the year you reach your FRA the limit increases by about 2.5 times and the penalty is less, and once you reach your FRA there is no longer a limit on your earnings. So, if you claim your survivor benefit at age 60 and are working, exceeding the earnings limit will result in you permanently losing some of your survivor benefits. If, instead, you claim your SS retirement benefit early (e.g., at age 62) you’ll still be subject to the earnings limit until you reach age 67, but at your FRA they will give you time credit for any months you didn’t get your retirement benefits and increase your benefit amount accordingly.
The important point to remember is that you have a choice of which benefit to take, and evaluating your options as described above should lead you to the right answer – whether you should claim your reduced survivor benefit at age 60, or to delay until it reaches maximum at age 67.
This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.