By Philip Moeller
December 18, 2014

Q. I am 61 and was divorced from my husband two years ago after more than 16 years of marriage. He died a few months ago at 72 and had been receiving Social Security benefits of $1,663 a month. I am working part-time, earning $13,000 a year, and want to continue doing so. According to the Social Security calculator, my own retirement benefit would be $1,028 a month if I claim at age 62, $1,364 at age 66 (my full retirement age), or $1,800 at age 70. If I claim a (reduced) widow’s survivor benefit before age 66, I expect to receive $1,314 a month if I file now at age 61½ or $1,347 at age 62.

Can I apply just for my survivor’s benefits now, continue to work, apply for Medicare at age 65, and at age 70 file for my own benefits? Also, while receiving survivor’s benefits, would I need to apply for my own benefits at age 66 and suspend it until age 70; or can I continue to collect survivor’s benefits, with no need to apply and suspend at 66, and change to my own benefits at 70? — Elizabeth

A. This is an incredibly well-informed query, so, first off, kudos to Elizabeth for doing her homework and doing such a good job looking out for herself. The details she provides are essential for figuring out her best Social Security claiming choice.

The simple answer to her question—whether to claim survivor’s benefits now—is “Yes.” The reasons for this illustrate the complexity of individual retirement benefits, as well as the way benefits interact, which can increase or reduce your Social Security income. This is a key issue for women, who tend to outlive their spouses and file the lion’s share of survivor claims.

The rules for widow’s (or survivor’s) benefits are different from spousal benefits, which involve claims on a current or divorced spouse. Survivor’s benefits may be taken as early as age 60, while spousal benefits normally can’t begin until age 62. Both benefits are lowered if you claim early, but the percentage reductions differ. That’s because survivors can claim up to six years before reaching their full retirement age (FRA), which is 66 for current claimants, compared with just four years for early spousal claims.

Another key difference is that survivor benefits do not trigger deeming when taken prior to full retirement age, which can be a real headache. If you are eligible to file for a spousal benefit and do so before age 66, Social Security will deem you to be also filing for your own retirement benefit. It does not pay two benefits at the same time but will give you an amount roughly equal to the greater of the two benefits. Further, once your retirement benefit has been triggered early, it will be permanently reduced.

The good news is that deeming does not apply to survivor benefits. So Elizabeth can file for a widow’s benefit right away and not trigger a claim for her own retirement benefit. Because it’s likely her retirement benefit will be higher at age 70 than her widow’s benefit, she should plan on taking the widow’s benefit as soon as possible. At age 70, she can switch to her retirement benefit .

She is correct that she will be hit with an early filing reduction. But given the small increases she would receive if she waited, the benefit of deferring is outweighed by the gains of claiming now. That’s because she will get more years of benefits, so the cumulative amount of income will be greater.

The modest earnings she receives won’t be a factor either. “Since her earnings are below the 2014 annual earning limits, she could qualify for widows benefits beginning this month with no loss of benefits due to the earnings test,” says James Nesbitt, a Social Security claims representative for nearly 40 years who now provides benefits counseling for High Falls Advisors in Rochester, NY.

“Depending on her past work history, her continued contributions into the Social Security system by working may have the effect of increasing her monthly benefit amount,” he adds. “The online retirement calculator on Social Security’s website will allow for future earnings to be used in estimating benefits.”

Elizabeth should set up an appointment now at a local Social Security office in order to begin receiving benefits as soon as possible, Nesbitt adds. If she files for her survivor benefit before age 65, Social Security should automatically enroll her in Medicare.

Further, Nesbitt notes, the precise amount of her survivor’s benefit depends on when her late husband filed early for his retirement benefit. This, like much else about Social Security, can be very complicated. But if his $1,663 benefit was the result of an early retirement filing, her actual survivor’s benefit could end up being much higher than she estimates. She should review this possibility when she meets with the agency to file her claim.

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Lastly, she should not file and suspend her own retirement benefit but simply collect her survivor’s benefit and then claim her own retirement benefit at age 70. “Once a retirement claim has been filed at 66, albeit suspended, the amount of the widow’s benefit will be calculated as if she is [also] receiving the retirement benefit,” Bennett notes. “A ‘file and suspend’ would reduce or possibly eliminate the widow’s benefit.”

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” will be published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

 

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