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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

The Best Way to Claim Social Security After Losing a Spouse

Jan 23, 2015

Q. My husband recently passed away at age 65. I'll be 62 in July, and I'm working full time. I went to the Social Security office and was told I could file for survivor benefits now, but would lose most of the income since my salary is about $37,000 a year. They told me to wait as long as possible to start collecting. My own Social Security benefits would be about $1,200 per month at 62, but since I'll keep working, I will forfeit most of it. I don't want to give up most of the benefits. But if there's money I can collect until I turn 66, I'd like to get it. —Deanna

A. Please accept my condolences at the loss of your husband. I am so sorry. As for your Social Security situation, let me explain a few things that I hope will make your decision clearer.

First off, it's true that the Earnings Test will reduce any benefits you receive before what's called your Full Retirement Age (66 for you). However, these benefit reductions are only temporary—you do not forfeit this income. When you reach 66, any amounts lost by the Earnings Test will be restored to you in the form of higher benefit payments.

The real consequence of taking benefits "early"—before your FRA—is that the amount you receive will be reduced. There are different early reduction amounts for retirement benefits and widow's benefits.

That said, you can file for a reduced retirement benefit at 62 and then switch to your widow's benefit at 66, when it will reach its maximum value to you. This makes sense if you are sure that your widow's benefit will always be larger than your own retirement benefit; more on that in moment.

One caveat: if you take your retirement benefits early, the restoration of Earnings Test reductions probably will be lost to you once you switch later to a widow's benefit. But if the widow's benefit is larger anyway, this should not bother you.

To find out more precisely what you'll get in retirement benefits, set up an online account at Social Security—you'll see the income you'll receive at different claiming ages. To get the comparable values of your survivor's benefit as a widow, however, you will need to get help from a Social Security representative.

Once you see those numbers, it could change your thinking. For example, what if your own retirement benefit is larger than your widow's benefit? It could happen, especially if you defer claiming until age 70 and earn delayed retirement credits. In that scenario, you would do better to claim your widow's benefit—and perhaps even take it early if you need the money. You can then switch to your retirement benefit at age 70.

These claiming choices can be very complicated. Economist Larry Kotlikoff, who is a friend and co-author of my new book on Social Security, developed a good software program, Maximize My Social Security ($40), which can take all your variables and plot your best claiming strategy. But I'm not trying to sell his software, believe me; there are other programs you can check out, which are mentioned here. Some are free, but paying a small fee for a comprehensive program may be worth it, when you consider the thousands of benefit dollars that are at stake.

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.

Read next: What You Need to Know About Social Security Survivor's Benefits

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