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.

Q&A: The perils of procrastination can be huge where finances are concerned

Dear Liz: My husband was killed in 2016 and was self-employed for the last three years of his life. I hadn’t gotten around to filing his taxes until earlier this year in June. At first the Social Security rep told me we were approved for survivor benefits but within the hour changed her decision. She said that since it’s been more than three years, the IRS won’t report his credits to Social Security and that is what ultimately disqualifies my children and me. I’m so confused and feel like my stomach just dropped to the floor.

Answer: Understandably. This appears to be one of those awful cases where putting something off has profound, irreversible consequences.

Survivor benefits are monthly checks paid to a worker’s minor children, typically until they turn 18. Surviving spouses normally can start benefits at age 60, but they can start at any age if they’re caring for the worker’s minor children. In that case, the caretaking spouse qualifies for benefits until the youngest child turns 16.

Limits vary, but what a family can receive is generally equal to between 150% and 180% of the worker’s basic benefit. The average survivor benefit for children is more than $800 a month, and the average for a caretaking mother or father is over $900 a month.

No worker needs more than 40 credits, which requires 10 years of work, to qualify a family for survivor benefits. The number of credits varies by age, so younger people need fewer credits.

Even if your husband didn’t have the required number of credits for his age, survivor benefits could have been paid if he had worked for at least 18 months in the previous three years.

But there is a deadline for self-employed taxpayers to have their incomes counted toward Social Security credits, which they do by filing their federal tax returns. The deadline is three years, three months and 15 days after the end of the calendar year in which the income is earned, said economist and Social Security expert Laurence Kotlikoff of MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

The deadline for reporting your husband’s 2016 income passed in March, while the deadlines for his 2014 and 2015 income passed in March 2018 and March 2019, respectively.

Appeal the decision because it’s possible that your husband earned enough other credits to qualify your family for benefits even without his last few years of work. But steel yourself for the likelihood that you’ve lost thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of dollars of potential benefits.

Q&A: Her dead ex’s kids can’t dictate benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I were living apart but not legally separated when he passed away. He was receiving disability benefits. His children, who are grown, tell me I am not eligible for widow or survivor benefits and that only they can collect his benefits. I am disabled myself and 51. Do their claims hold any weight? Could he have removed me as a recipient?

Answer: No and no. The children are wrong, not just about your eligibility for benefits but also about their own. Social Security survivor benefits typically aren’t available to children over 18, but they are available to widows and widowers starting at age 60, or starting at 50 if the spouse is disabled.

As long as you weren’t divorced, you would be eligible for survivor benefits. And if you had divorced, you could still be eligible for survivor benefits if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

You can call the Social Security toll-free number at (800) 772-1213 for more information.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My husband passed away at age 59 last year. He was sick and unable to work the last four years of his life. I will be 56 in October. My understanding is I will not be able to draw his Social Security benefits until I am age 60. Is this correct? I struggle financially and need that money now. Also, could he have drawn his Social Security benefits before he turned 60 since he was unable to work?

Answer: Your husband could not draw retirement benefits before age 62, but he may have been a candidate for Social Security Disability Income or Supplemental Security Income if his condition was severe enough to prevent him from working. SSDI is available to people who have worked long enough to be “insured,” which generally means 10 years in jobs that pay into Social Security. SSI is intended for aged, blind and disabled people with low incomes and few assets.

You won’t be eligible for survivor benefits until you’re 60. If you’re struggling, please visit Benefits.gov to see if you’re eligible for other government programs. You also can call 211 or visit 211.org to see what resources in your community may be available to help you.

Q&A: Spousal benefits go to spouse, not partner

Dear Liz: I’ve been separated from my husband for 50 years but there’s been no legal divorce. If he dies, do I receive his Social Security benefit or does his common-law wife of 20 years?

Answer: You do.

Social Security recognizes common law marriage if a couple lives in a state that recognizes such unions, or lived in one when the marriage began. No state, however, recognizes common-law bigamy. As long as he’s still married to you, he can’t be legally married to someone else.

If the two of you divorced and he re-married, his spouse could qualify for benefits on his work record — but so could you. Since your marriage lasted more than 10 years, you could qualify for divorced spousal benefits (a percentage of his benefit while he was alive) as well as divorced survivor benefits (100% of his benefit when he dies). Your divorced spousal benefits would end if you remarry. If he dies and you get divorced survivor benefits, you would be able to keep those if you’re 60 or older when you remarry.

Q&A: When to claim a survivor benefit

Dear Liz: As a widower who just turned 60, what are the pros and cons of starting my survivor benefit now? My wife passed away at 55, after 20 years of marriage. My lifetime earnings are higher than hers. I am in good health and have not remarried (though I’m open to doing so). Finances are not an issue. I’m debating how long to continue to work. It seems my best Social Security approach is to claim the survivor benefit now, then later (perhaps at age 67 or 70) claim my own benefit. Your thoughts, please?

Answer: If you start any Social Security benefit before your own full retirement age, you will be subject to the earnings test that reduces your checks by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit ($18,240 in 2020). So if you continue to work, it’s often best to delay starting benefits.

Your full retirement age is 66 years and 10 months if you were born in 1959. (It’s 67 for people born in 1960 and later.) Once you reach full retirement age, the earnings test disappears. You could collect the survivor benefit and leave your own alone to grow. Once your benefit maxes out at age 70, you could switch.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits complications

Dear Liz: My husband started collecting Social Security benefits at age 62. I was still working at the time. When I reached my full retirement age of 66, I started collecting spousal benefits, or 50% of the benefit he received. After I reached age 70 and retired, I switched over to my own benefit as it was a larger amount.

If my husband should die first, can I switch back to a survivor benefit based on his earnings record or do I have to continue collecting my own? As I understand it, the survivor benefit would be 100% of his benefit, which is more than I currently receive.

Answer: When one of you dies, the survivor will get one check instead of two, and the amount will be the larger of the two benefits you’re receiving now. So if he dies first, you’ll essentially stop getting your check and start collecting a survivor’s benefit equal to his.

You were lucky that you were able to file what’s known as a “restricted application” to get spousal benefits first, so that your own benefit could continue to grow. That option is not available to people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954.

But it’s unfortunate that your husband started benefits early because that permanently reduces the amount the survivor will receive in the future. Typically it’s best for the higher earner in a couple to delay receiving Social Security benefits as long as possible to maximize what’s left for the survivor.

Q&A: Does Social Security pay survivor benefits in same-sex unions?

Dear Liz: I am 65 and was recently laid off after 26 years with the same company. My life partner of 25 years died in 2010. We had been legally married in 2008. I’d like to wait until I’m 70 to collect my Social Security. Is there any way I can collect her Social Security until then? I don’t know what the federal laws are regarding this and whether they have caught up to the intent of the law regarding same-sex unions. I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering about this, so any guidance you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Yes, you should be entitled to a survivor benefit that’s either equal to what your wife was getting at her death, or what she would have received at full retirement age if she died before applying for her benefits.

A reduced survivor’s benefit is available starting at age 60. You can’t backdate your application until then — the most you can get if you apply now is a lump sum equal to six previous months of benefits. You retain the ability to switch from a survivor benefit to your own (or vice versa for that matter). That’s one of the many ways that survivor benefits differ from spousal benefits, since the ability to switch from a spousal benefit to one’s own benefit is being phased out.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My 90-year-old father recently passed away. My mother, who will be 90 in February, has a phone meeting with Social Security coming up. It is my understanding that she will have the opportunity to take my dad’s full benefit in place of hers since it is much higher. Is that correct? Is there anything else I should know to help her receive the maximum benefits?

Answer: Survivors get only one Social Security check, and it’s the larger of the two they received when their spouses were alive. So yes, she will get the amount your father got. At this point she can’t do much to maximize her Social Security benefit. What she gets depends on when your father started his benefit. The later he started, the more she’ll receive.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I earned more than my wife, who died at age 57 after 18 years of marriage. When I turn 60, can I take survivor Social Security benefits based on her work record and then request my benefit at age 70?

Answer: In a word, yes, and doing so may be smart.

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits, which inflict some severe penalties for starting checks early. When you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, you’re locked into a permanently smaller check and you can’t later switch to your own benefit, even if it’s larger. The only way to preserve the ability to switch is to file a restricted application for just the spousal benefit at your own full retirement age (which is 66 for people born from 1943 to 1954 and gradually increases to age 67 for people born in 1955 and later). Then you preserve the right to change to your own benefit when it maxes out at age 70.
With survivor benefits, starting early means a reduced check — your widower benefit at 60 would be 30% smaller than if you waited until your full retirement age — but you can switch to your own benefit later. And if you don’t work, starting survivor benefits at 60 is the better course, said economist Laurence Kotlikoff, coauthor of “Getting What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security.”

“Getting a reduced benefit for 10 years, from 60 to 70, is better than getting an unreduced benefit for fewer years,” Kotlikoff said.
If you work, however, the math becomes less clear. When you start benefits early, your check is reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain limit, which in 2015 is $15,720. That penalty disappears once you hit your full retirement age.

Online calculators can help you determine the best Social Security claiming strategy. AARP and T. Rowe Price are among the sites that provide free calculators, but they don’t factor in survivor benefits. Consider spending about $40 for one of the more sophisticated calculators, such as Kotlikoff’s MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, that can include this important benefit.