Dear Rusty: My husband passed away in 2001, and he paid into Social Security every year he worked, which would be over 30 years. If he were alive today, he would be 75 years old. I am 57 years old and still working full time. Am I able to collect his Social Security benefits now since I am still working? Signed: Widowed Worker
Dear Widowed Worker: You are not eligible to collect a survivor benefit from your deceased husband if you have remarried, and you cannot collect the survivor benefit until you are at least 60 years of age. And if you claim at age 60 the survivor benefit will be reduced by 28.5% from what it would be if you waited until your full retirement age (FRA) to claim it (your full retirement age is 67). Any time any Social Security (SS) benefit is taken before FRA, it is reduced.
You can claim only your survivor benefit (not your own SS benefit) at age 60, but whenever benefits are taken before full retirement age, and you are still working, you are subject to Social Security’s “earnings test” which limits how much you can earn before Social Security takes back some of your benefits.
The earnings limit for 2020 is $18,240 (it changes yearly) and if the limit is exceeded Social Security will take back benefits equal to $1 for every $2 you are over the limit. Such lost survivor benefits are not recoverable. Social Security publishes next year’s earnings limits in the fall of each year prior, so what the earnings limit will be when you reach age 60 isn’t yet known, but it will be an amount that is more than the 2020 limit.
Assuming you will also be eligible for your own Social Security benefits from your own lifetime work record, you should evaluate which benefit, at maximum, will give you the highest benefit amount. If that is your survivor benefit from your husband (which, at your FRA, would be 100% of the benefit your husband was collecting when he died), then you should consider maximizing the survivor benefit by not claiming it until you reach your FRA. If money is needed earlier, you could claim your own SS benefit as early as age 62 and allow your survivor benefit to reach maximum at your FRA. Conversely, if your own Social Security benefit from your own work record will be higher at maximum than your survivor benefit, then you could claim your survivor benefit first and delay claiming your own benefit until it reaches maximum at age 70 (your own benefit will be 24% more at 70 than it will be at your FRA). Your goal should be to get the highest possible benefit for the rest of your life and comparing these two options will permit you to do that. You can find out your estimated benefit amounts in both cases by contacting Social Security.
And remember, if you decide to claim your own benefit before your FRA that, too, will be subject to the earnings limit until you reach your FRA, after which there is no longer a limit to how much you can earn.
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 [email protected].