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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

Social Security Survivor and Personal Benefits

A reader from Washington seeks clarification on claiming a Social Security survivor benefit and the timing of claiming her own benefit.


"My husband passed away in September 2020. At that time, his Social Security income, which he claimed at age 62, was $1,285 monthly. My birth date is 4/7/1962. My earned income next year from a part-time job will be $28,000 yearly. Question 1 - I will claim my own benefit at 70 because mine is bigger than my husband's. However, I'd like to claim the survivor benefit in 2024. What will my benefit be? Question 2 - I will continue earning the same income for the next five years. Does it make sense for me to wait until I stop working to claim the survivor benefit due to the earnings test?"


Let's look at the first question: "What will the benefit be?" Rather than go through the entire benefit calculation process verbally – mainly because there are so many moving parts in this situation – let me just describe what factors will contribute to your benefit.


You're about to become eligible for a survivor benefit, sometimes called widow or widower benefit, because your husband was collecting $1,285 a month. At 62, you have the right to collect what he was collecting, but there could be a couple of adjustments. First, for you to collect a survivor benefit equal to 100% of what he was collecting, you have to wait for your Full Retirement Age (FRA). Since you were born in 1962, your FRA will be age 67. If you claim a benefit from Social Security before your FRA trigger, your benefit will be reduced, whether it's a survivor or a retirement benefit.


Early claiming will apply a reduction to that $1,285. However, there's some good news. Since your husband claimed at age 62, you're likely to benefit from a special Social Security rule called RIBLIM that tries to protect spouses whose deceased spouse has claimed at a very young age. Age 62 was the earliest age your husband could claim, and his benefit was reduced. I can't tell you precisely how much the reduction was since I don't know when he was born, but I believe you will likely benefit from RIBLIM. True to its goal, that would be a way to reduce the harm to your survivor benefit of your spouse claiming at 62.


So you have two factors at play here: the increase that's likely to come from RIBLIM and the decrease that will come because you're claiming before your FRA. Your best bet for getting the actual benefit amount is to contact Social Security and ask them, "What will my benefit be if I claim my survivor benefit from my deceased spouse in 2024?" They'll have it all in their system, and it'll take them two seconds to pull it up and tell you. You can call them or go talk to them if the office in your area is open for face-to-face service (which most are now). Some offices require appointments, while others allow walk-ins. Whatever means you use to contact them, they should be able to share with you how much that benefit might be.


That's the simplest answer to your first question, with a couple of tidbits about what can affect the benefit you might receive from your deceased spouse's record.


On your second question, if you're earning $28,000 per year, you will face the earnings test. The earnings test applies to anyone receiving benefits before their FRA – and you're considering claiming your survivor benefit well before your FRA age of 67. The test states that if you earn above a specific limit while simultaneously collecting Social Security, they will reduce your Social Security benefits: $1 for every $2 earned – or $1 for every $3 in some instances. The limit increases each year in which inflation justifies it, similar to annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs). For comparison, the earnings limit was $19,560 in 2022 and $21,240 in 2023. When you claim in 2024, the limit will likely be higher than it is today.


So, you may well have a reduction in the survivor benefit because your earnings at $28,000 are above the earnings test limit. You ask if it makes sense to wait until you stop working. No, because any survivor benefit dollars you leave behind unclaimed while you're waiting to claim your own benefit at age 70 are dollars that you'll never get back. With your own retirement benefit, by waiting until you stop working to claim, you'll get an increase in the benefit amount due to that wait. Also, Social Security will make you whole for any offsets or adjustments you experienced due to the earnings test.


But with the survivor benefit, anything you lose to the earnings test doesn't come back. However, you aren't staying on the survivor benefit forever, so you should try to harvest as much as possible from survivor benefits. You'll likely receive some amount because your earnings are insufficient at $28,000 a year to wipe out the survivor benefit completely. I suggest collecting as much as possible until you switch to your own benefit.


It's not impossible for the math to work out in your favor if you wait a few years, thus not experiencing the reduction to the same degree by claiming earlier than your FRA. You might be saying, "If I wait, not only do I avoid the earnings test, but I'll get a higher survivor benefit." Actually, because the time you'll be collecting the survivor benefit is so short – only until age 70 – the breakeven point is well beyond that.


With so many moving parts (the RIBLIM, early claiming, the earnings test, etc.), I would need more details to be able to crunch the numbers and calculate the best option. But having seen enough similar cases, my gut tells me that it's likely in your best interest to claim as soon as possible (starting at age 62) and contact Social Security to find out what that benefit might be.


One important note: if you claim, be very clear that you only want to claim the survivor benefit and not your retirement benefit, which you'll switch to at a later date. That may be at age 70 – when your benefit is the largest – in which case you'd be paid to wait. This way, you could collect the survivor benefit (however much it might be) as you wait to claim your larger retirement benefit at age 70 for the rest of your life.


While I couldn't give you a dollar amount of the benefit, hopefully, this information is helpful. And, given the numbers provided, I believe it makes sense to go ahead and pull the trigger on the survivor benefit -- and collect even if the amount is offset a bit by the earnings test.

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