Social Security Q&A: What Are the Options for Widows?

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Welcome to “Social Security Q&A.” You ask a Social Security question, and our guest expert provides the answer.

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Today’s question comes from George:

A good friend of mine passed away this year at age 61. I’m sure that he earned the maximum Social Security amount for the 35-year requirement to collect the maximum Social Security benefit. His wife is also 61. What are her options to begin taking Social Security to maximize her benefit? I believe she has a safe amount of money for her retirement.

Your deceased friend’s wife — let’s call her Ann — has several possible options, depending on the relationship between her widow’s benefit and her own Social Security retirement benefit (assuming she has one).

Options for widows

First, she could claim widow’s benefits only. She could claim as early as age 60 or as late as her widow’s full retirement age (FRA), which for Ann is 66 and 2 months. Survivors benefits reach a maximum at a survivor’s FRA, so nothing is gained by waiting beyond that age. Claiming prior to her FRA results in an early claiming penalty, which can be substantial.

Second, she could claim her own retirement benefits alone. Those benefits could be claimed anytime between age 62 and age 70. Again, claiming prior to her FRA would result in an early claiming penalty. However, unlike survivors benefits, retirement benefits will continue to grow (at about 8 percent per year) if claiming is delayed beyond her FRA.

Third, she could claim widow’s benefits as early as age 60 and then switch to retirement benefits at any point between ages 62 and 70. Of course, she would switch only if that led to higher benefits.

Fourth, she could claim retirement benefits first (as early as age 62) and then switch to her widow’s benefits at any point up to her FRA.

If you remarry

Those are the potential options if she does not remarry. If she were to remarry after age 60, then additional options would arise in connection with her new husband. Notably, remarriage after turning 60 would not eliminate any of the above four options.

Clearly, sorting through these options in order to find the optimal claiming strategy for Ann is likely to be a daunting process. Ann would almost surely benefit from some inexpensive professional help.

George, you don’t give me enough information to provide detailed guidance for Ann. However, I did use my firm’s software to provide an illustrative case involving both retirement benefits and widow’s benefits.

Let’s imagine that Ann has retirement benefits of $1,000 at her FRA. Alternatively, she could receive $2,200 in widow’s benefits at her FRA. How should Ann sequence her claims?

The answer depends on Ann’s life expectancy. Looking at a normal life expectancy of 86 for a woman, my computer analysis suggests the following for an optimal claiming strategy: Ann should claim retirement benefits early at age 62 (worth $725 a month). Then at her FRA, she should switch to widow’s benefits equal to the full amount of $2,200. Of course, Ann’s situation may be very different from the one illustrated here.

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The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. So, it’s better not to ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you.

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, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer on today’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page. And if you find this information useful, please share it!

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 SSA 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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