• Chris Stein, CFP®

How Do I Know Which Survivor Social Security Benefits to Claim?

A reader would like to know about claiming Social Security benefits on his deceased spouse's record.

"My wife passed away last year. Can I claim benefits under her earnings when I turn 62 next year and then change to use my earnings when I reach my full retirement age?"

There are a couple of moving parts to look at here. First of all, until several years ago, if you had reached your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you were able to file just a spousal claim and then switch to your work record later. It was called filing a restricted application.

That's been phased out, but there are still a few people grandfathered into that option. But, for the most part, you can no longer pick and choose like that. You are now always deemed to be filing on your own record.

However, that doesn't apply to survivor benefit claiming. What you're describing is claiming survivor benefits on your deceased wife's Social Security record. And in that case, you can file just a survivor benefit, and then wait, leaving your benefit unclaimed – and growing – to as late as age 70.

At that point, if your payment is larger than that of your survivor benefit, you would switch to the larger payment at 70. You could choose to switch before that, of course. You mentioned switching at your FRA, which would be somewhere between age 66 and 67, depending on your date of birth.

So, yes, under current law, you can absolutely do what you're asking.

The other 'moving part' is this: I think you have age 62 stuck in your head because that's the youngest age at which you can file a spousal benefit claim or a claim of your own. But survivor benefits are available as early as age 60. You said you'd turn 62 next year, so that tells me you're already 60. That says you can file now.

You may not want to file because the earnings test that applies to your own benefits applies to survivor benefits as well. The "retirement earnings test" or RET kicks in when you claim Social Security benefits before you reach your FRA, and you continue working.

If you earn above a certain threshold, you are subject to RET. Social Security reduces your payment each month according to specific formulas until you reach FRA. However, the withheld benefits are not lost. Once you reach FRA, they are added back into your monthly benefit. And, if you continue working after FRA, you are no longer penalized.

If you are still working, you may find that claiming your survivor benefit does not help you as much as you are expecting.

If you're not working and you intend to claim your survivor benefit for the longest time possible before switching to your own benefit, you might want to crunch the numbers. You'll want to see if it would help and if you'd prefer to have that claim happen sooner than later.

Either way, technically, you are eligible to claim a reduced survivor benefit as early as age 60, and you've already met that requirement. You can, if you want to, but you don't have to. The decision is yours.

Jim's best friend Mosby

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