Social Security Q&A: Can I Get Survivor’s Benefits If My Spouse Died Young?

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This week’s question is from Keith:

My wife passed away two years ago at age 53. She worked full time since her early 20s. My age is 58 and I am employed full time. Do I qualify at any time to receive any benefits from my deceased wife’s Social Security account?

Must meet 2 requirements to collect

Keith, you do indeed qualify — at least potentially — for survivor’s benefits, provided you meet a couple of marital status requirements. The first one is that you and your deceased wife were married for longer than nine months. Although if the death was accidental, the nine-month requirement is waived.

The second requirement is that you are unmarried when you turn 60. Remarriage after turning 60 will not affect your eligibility for widower’s benefits on your deceased spouse’s record.

You can claim widower’s benefits as early as age 60. However, if you claim those benefits prior to your survivor’s full retirement age (FRA) of 66 and 6 months, you are hit with an early claiming penalty. (Note that the survivor’s FRA differs slightly from the FRA for retirement benefits.) This penalty is 28.5 percent if you claim at 60. Claiming at a later age reduces the penalty, and it falls to zero at your FRA.

Another issue: the earnings penalty

Keith, you state that you are working full time. If you continue working into your 60s, you face another issue: the earnings penalty. Presently, if you earn more than $17,640 a year, you lose $1 in Social Security benefits for every $2 earned over that amount prior to reaching your FRA. (This penalty is not as severe for the year when you reach your FRA.) So, while in principle you qualify for widower’s benefits, you may never receive them as long as the earnings penalty applies.

At the point where the earnings penalty no longer applies, you may find the following claiming strategy advantageous. You could claim widower’s benefits first, and then at age 70 switch to your own retirement benefits, assuming those benefits are larger.

Let’s suppose the widower’s benefits are large relative to your retirement benefits. In this instance, it may be financially advantageous to claim retirement benefits first (as early as age 62) and then switch to widower’s benefits at your FRA. Keep in mind that widower’s benefits do not continue to grow after a person reaches their FRA, so there is no advantage in waiting beyond FRA to claim them.

Keith, to find your most advantageous claiming strategy, you might want to seek professional help. Here is a good place to start.

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About me

I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. In 2009, I co-founded SocialSecurityChoices.com, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

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Disclaimer: We strive to provide accurate information with regard to the subject matter covered. It is offered with the understanding that we are not offering legal, accounting, investment or other professional advice or services, and that the Social Security Administration alone makes all final determinations on your eligibility for benefits and the benefit amounts. Our advice on claiming strategies does not comprise a comprehensive financial plan. You should consult with your financial adviser regarding your individual situation.

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