Q&A: When to start taking Social Security

Dear Liz: You’ve often talked about delaying the start of Social Security benefits to maximize your check. But what about in the case of a widow? My husband died in 2006 at the age of 57. I will be 62 this year and could start receiving benefits based on his earnings. (I did not work during our marriage as I was a home-schooling mom.) I’ve been living off my husband’s modest pension benefits. Would waiting until full retirement age increase the monthly payment I would ultimately get? One of the reasons I ask is that I have an adult son who lives with me and who probably will never be able to have a job. Yet he is not officially disabled and, as far as I know, is not eligible for any kind of benefits. I wondered if it might be a good idea to start taking Social Security as soon as I could and either save or invest the monthly checks to add to what I could leave my son (I have an IRA and other assets I hope not to have to touch). My pension will cease when I die.

Answer: You could have started receiving survivor’s benefits at 60. (Those who are disabled can start survivor’s benefits as early as age 50, or at any age if they’re caring for a minor child or a child who is disabled under Social Security rules.) Since your husband died before he started benefits, your check would be based on what your husband would have received at his full retirement age of 66. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, the survivor’s benefit is permanently reduced.

For many people, starting survivor’s benefits isn’t as bad an idea as starting other benefits early. That’s because survivors can switch to their own work-based benefit any time between age 62 and 70 if that benefit is larger. Starting survivors benefits early can give the survivor’s own work-based benefit a chance to grow.

In your case, however, the survivor’s benefit is all you’re going to get from Social Security. While it may be tempting to take it early and invest it, you’re unlikely to match the return you’d get from simply waiting a few years to start.

Your description of your non-working adult son as “not officially disabled” is a bit baffling. If he has a disability that truly prevents him from working, getting him qualified for government benefits would provide him with income and healthcare that would continue despite whatever happens with you. (You may not want to touch your assets, but that might be necessary if you need long-term care.) If he can work, then getting him launched and self-supporting would be of far greater benefit than hoarding your Social Security checks for him.


  1. Patricia Greenough says

    Hello Liz,
    In your posted advice today to the woman whose husband died at age 57 and she has a non-working adult son living with her who is “not officially disabled” may mean that her son has autism. My son is also and is not able to work though he is high functioning, but not as able as as one with Asperger’s. For years he was misdiagnosed and only in recent years did a very knowledgeable doctor diagnose him as autistic. Before that I’d tried to get Social Security disability for him but was unable to until he was hospitalized. He’d been living on his own but was unable to take care of himself (he stopped eating) and went downhill. He also was unable to live in a 1/2 way house as autistic people are unable to relate to others and advocate for themselves. He needs the care, guidance, and supervision
    that I provide for him. So it was being hospitalized that enabled him to qualify for Social Security Disability. My advice would be for the Mom to seek out doctors (Psychiatrist’s)to have her son tested, and keep searching until she finds a very knowledgeable doctor to help.

    Kindest regards,

    • Liz Weston says

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Patricia. I’m sorry you and your son had to go through all that.