Q&A: Checking survivor benefit eligibility

Dear Liz: I was widowed at 44, when my children were 10 and 12. I received Social Security benefits for myself and for them for a time. I then went back to work. I started taking Social Security at 65 even though I continued working until 70. I hear a lot about widows’ benefits and wonder whether I would be eligible. I need the funds.

Answer: Call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 and ask whether your survivor benefit, based on your husband’s work record, is greater than the benefit you’re receiving. If it is, you’ll get the larger of the two benefits, rather than both of them. If it’s not, you’ll continue to get your own benefit.

You first qualified for survivor benefits because you were caring for a deceased worker’s minor children. Your benefit probably ended when the younger child turned 16, although the children could continue receiving checks until they turned 18 or graduated from high school, whichever occurred later.

Otherwise, survivor benefits are typically available at age 60, although the amount available is reduced if you start benefits before your own full retirement age (which used to be 65 but is currently between 66 and 67). Also, benefits started before full retirement age are subject to the earnings test, which withholds $1 for every $2 earned over a certain amount ($21,240 in 2023).

When you applied for Social Security at 65, the agency may have compared the benefit you earned on your own record with the survivor benefit you were eligible for based on your late husband’s record, and given you the larger of the two. If not, ask them to make the comparison now and see if you’d be better off.