Q&A: Survivor vs. retirement benefits

Dear Liz: I was 21 and my husband was 69 when we got married. He died in 1992 after 13 years of marriage. Our young son and I received survivor benefits for years. I got remarried in 2000 and divorced in 2008. When I reach my full retirement age of 66 years and 8 months, could I still claim survivor benefits from my first husband?

Answer: Yes, although you may want to start them sooner.

If your second marriage had lasted, you wouldn’t have been eligible for survivor benefits based on your first husband’s earnings record. Widows and widowers who remarry before age 60 aren’t eligible for survivor benefits.

Since that marriage ended, though, you were eligible to begin benefits at age 60. You are also free to remarry at 60 or later without losing those benefits.

Starting before your full retirement age for survivor benefits, however, means your check would be reduced and also subject to the earnings test, which reduces your benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($18,960 in 2021).

As mentioned in a previous column, your full retirement age for survivor benefits is different from your full retirement age for retirement benefits. Since you were born in 1958, your full retirement age for survivor benefits is four months earlier, or 66 years and 4 months.

In most cases, starting a Social Security benefit early locks you into a smaller check permanently. With survivor benefits, though, you also have the option of switching to your own retirement benefit later, if it’s larger. The ability to switch benefits is severely limited with Social Security, but survivor benefits remain the exception.

Being eligible for survivor benefits complicates claiming decisions, so consider using a more sophisticated claiming calculator such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions to determine how best to file.

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  1. Dear Liz,
    I started receiving Retirement Survivor’s Disability Benefits at the Age of 41, in August of 2008. Due to a deceased parent who had passed away that had been receiving Social Security Disability Benefits also. I’m wanting to know how I can go about Saving money towards retirement under Social Security’s System? And at what age I should claim full Retirement Survivor’s Benefits being that I have never been married? I was born in October of 1967, and I am currently 53 years of age. And I currently have no Children or Dependants.

    • Hi, Michelle. If you can’t work, you can’t contribute to Social Security or IRAs and other retirement plans, but you can save in taxable accounts (if that won’t interfere with getting other benefits). Your best bet may be to call Social Security and discuss your options.