imagesSocial Security can be a tough knot for anyone to untangle and the decisions become even more complicated for a widow. Here’s a short primer that ever widow should know before applying for benefits.

When do you become eligible for survivor benefits?

You are entitled to 100% of your deceased spouse’s benefit at full retirement age (FRA) or you can take reduced benefits as early as age 60. If you are disabled, you can begin taking benefits at 50. The FRA is 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954, and gradually increases up to 67 if you were born between 1955 and 1959. The FRA for everyone born after 1960 is 67.

At any given time you have to select either survivor’s benefits or your own benefits, you are not entitled to both. However, what many working widows don’t recognize is that you can apply for your spousal benefit at age 60 and let your own benefit continue to grow.  This may allow your own benefit to grow larger so that you can eventually switch over to the higher of the two (his or yours). Don’t wait beyond age 70 to begin taking Social Security because there is no additional increase in the benefit after this age. If you were already receiving Social Security benefits before your spouse’s death, you can call Social Security to see if you will receive more money collecting survivor’s benefits.

How do your earnings from work affect Social Security benefits?

Generally, if you plan to keep working, you can cover your current expenses, and you are in reasonably good health, you should delay taking Social Security benefits until full retirement. If you take Social Security or survivor’s benefits before FRA and you earn over a certain level, Social Security will withhold part of your benefit.

Once you reach FRA, you can keep working and your benefits will not be reduced regardless of your earnings. However, if you are still working while taking Social Security, you may end up paying taxes on a much larger portion of your benefits.

Taking Social Security early results in a reduced benefit based on the number of months you receive Social Security before FRA. The maximum reduction (for starting your benefit at age 60) is 28.5%, so you would receive $715 for every $1000 of your spouse’s benefit. You may be able to begin by taking a reduced survivor’s benefit before your normal retirement age, and then switch to an unreduced benefit based on your own earnings record, at full retirement age with NO PENALTY for starting early!

If you get remarried how will your Social Security benefits be impacted?

After age 60, remarriage does not impact your survivor’s benefits. At age 62, you are entitled to benefits based on a new spouse’s work record, if those would be higher.

What if I have children?

As a widow, you can receive 75% of your spouse’s benefits at any age if you are still raising children under the age of 16.  Your children are also eligible to receive benefits at the 75% rate.  Children must meet the following criteria in order for both of you to qualify:

  • Unmarried;
  • 19 years old or younger and a full-time student (no higher than grade 12); or
  • Disabled (The disability must have started before age 22.)

Under certain conditions adopted children, grandchildren, or stepchildren are also eligible. If other family members are entitled to survivor’s benefits, be aware that there is a limit to the total amount that can be paid to a family.

When and how should I apply?

Widows cannot apply for survivor benefits online.  You should contact Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 to request an appointment. And don’t delay. Social Security will pay a widow for the month of death when she files the application the month immediately following the death.  Otherwise, a widow can only be paid beginning with the month she files an application.

Social Security can be extremely complex and widows have many opportunities to optimize their benefits.  Before filing for benefits, I recommend researching your options and speaking with a certified financial planner so that you have all the tools necessary to untangle the Social Security knot.

~Joy Kirsch


Securities, advisory services and financial planning offered through LPL Financial, a Registered Investment Advisor.

Member SIPC/FINRA. The Modern Widows Club is not affiliated with Kirsch & Associates or LPL Financial.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.