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Ask Rusty - Should I take Widow’s Benefits or Retirement Benefits?

December 30, 2018

Dear Rusty: I am 58 years old. My spouse passed away last year, and I am entitled to survivor benefits. I am trying to plan for when I can retire from working, but don’t know if I should take my widow’s benefit or my own Social Security.

I called Social Security twice and have received two different answers. If I claim Social Security at 62, will I receive 70 or 80 percent of the full amount? This makes a huge difference in deciding when I should retire. Signed: Widowed Worker

Dear Widowed Worker: There are two different types of Social Security benefits that you need to be concerned with - your benefit as a survivor; and your own SS retirement benefit which you have earned from working all your life. The thing to keep in mind is that any time any Social Security benefit is taken earlier than one’s full retirement age, it is reduced (born in 1960 your normal full retirement age (FRA) is age 67).

You will be eligible for your survivor’s benefit when you reach age 60 (unless you’re disabled in which case it’s 50). But if you take the survivor’s benefit at 60 it will only be about 71.5 percent of what you would get by waiting until your full retirement age to claim it.

Your FRA as a widow is less than your normal FRA; your widow’s FRA is 66 years and 8 months. The reduction for claiming the survivor’s benefit earlier than your widow’s FRA is about 4.75 percent per year early. Your survivor’s benefit will reach its maximum (100 percent of what your husband was entitled to at his death) when you reach your widow’s full retirement age, but it does not continue to grow if you wait beyond that to claim it.

You will be eligible to collect your own Social Security retirement benefits from your lifetime work record when you reach 62 years of age, but if you take it at age 62 you will only get 70 percent of what you would get by waiting until your full retirement age of 67.

SS retirement benefits are reduced by 6.7 percent per year for the first 3 years claimed early and 5 percent per year for anything more than 3 years, so with an FRA of 67 your benefit would be cut by 30 percent at age 62.

Unlike survivor’s benefits, your retirement benefit continues to grow in value (by 8 percent per year) until you are 70 years of age. So, at age 70 you can get a retirement benefit, which is 24 percent more than you would get at your full retirement age.

Here’s an example, assuming your Social Security retirement benefit at your normal FRA is $1,000: If you claim at age 62 your benefit amount will be $700/month; claim at age 70 your benefit amount will be $1240/month.

Your wisest approach will be to determine which type of benefit will pay you the most for the rest of your life.

If that is your survivor’s benefit, then you might consider taking your own SS retirement benefit at age 62 and collect that until your survivor benefit reaches maximum at age 66 + 8 months and claim the survivor benefit then. If your own SS retirement benefit will pay more at age 70 than your survivor benefit will pay at your widow’s full retirement age, then you can consider collecting your survivor’s benefit until your own SS benefit reaches maximum at age 70 and switch to the higher benefit (your own) at that time.

You have a choice of which benefit to take and when, but whenever you apply you should be very explicit which benefit you are applying for. If you want to take the survivor’s benefit and let your own grow, you should apply saying “I am applying for survivor’s benefits only; I want my retirement benefit to grow.” If you are applying for your own SS retirement benefit, you should apply saying “I am applying for my retirement benefit only; I want my survivor’s benefit to grow until my widow’s full retirement age.”

Russell Gloor is a certified Social Security advisor with the Association of Mature American Citizens.

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