Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My beloved brother died recently. He was 70, retired and collecting Social Security. His husband, age 63, is still working. They had been married since 2008 but when he applied for survivor benefits, he was denied. Several in our friend group looked into this and the way we all read it, he should be entitled to survivor benefits. What are we not understanding?

Answer: Your brother-in-law wasn’t denied a survivor benefit, precisely. He just earns too much to receive one.

If your brother-in-law was born in 1960, his full retirement age is 67. People who apply for Social Security benefits before their full retirement age are subject to the earnings test, which reduces their benefit by $1 for every $2 they earn over a certain limit, which in 2023 is $21,240.

The earnings test will go away once he turns 67. At that point — or earlier, if he reduces his work hours and earnings sufficiently — he will have a choice between starting a survivor benefit and starting his own, with the option to switch later. If he’s earned a sizable benefit on his own work record, for example, it could make sense to start the survivor benefit and allow his own benefit to grow until it maxes out at age 70. A claiming strategies site, such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions, can help him choose the right course, or he could consult a fee-only financial planner.

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