Q&A: Get help claiming Social Security

Dear Liz: I read your column about the disabled woman who was asking about survivor benefits. I am 60 and my husband died when he was 65, but he was not receiving Social Security. We both paid into Social Security for our entire working careers and maxed out every year. I have been told that I can receive his benefits when I am 65. I wonder why I cannot collect his benefits now.

Answer: You can, but you may not want to if you’re still working and earning the kind of six-figure income needed to “max out” your Social Security taxes.

People who start Social Security benefits early are subject to an earnings test that withholds $1 in benefits for every $2 they earn above a certain amount, which in 2019 is $17,640. Social Security has a calculator to help you determine the effect on your benefit at https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/RTeffect.html. Your survivor’s benefit also will be reduced if you start it before your own full retirement age, which in your case is either 66 years and 8 months (if you were born in 1958) or 66 years and 10 months (if you were born in 1959).

Once you’ve reached full retirement age, however, the earnings test goes away, as does the reduction for starting benefits early. At that point, you could apply for full survivor benefits and leave your own retirement benefit alone to grow 8% each year until it maxes out at age 70. You can continue to work and receive benefits without facing any reductions.

Social Security can be astoundingly complex, and claiming decisions can be affected by a number of factors. AARP has a free Social Security claiming calculator, but it can’t deal with some situations such as survivor’s benefits, child benefits (for retirement-age people who have minor children) or the offsets associated with pensions that don’t pay into Social Security. For those, you would need to pay about $40 to use a more sophisticated calculator such as the one at MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, or to consult a fee-only financial planner with experience in this area.

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