Ask Larry: Can I Take My Social Security’s Widow’s Benefit Before My Retirement Benefit At 70?

Today’s column addresses questions about whether to take a survivor’s benefit before a retirement benefit delayed until 70, how Canadian pensions can affect US Social Security benefits and how Social Security verifies marriages. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, which markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.

Can I Take My Social Security’s Widow’s Benefit Before My Retirement Benefit At 70?

Hi Larry, My husband took Social Security retirement benefit at 62. I took my spousal benefit at 66, postponing taking my retirement benefit until 70. My husband just passed away. Will I now get my widow’s benefit instead of my spousal benefit and will it be what he was getting? Can I still postpone my retirement benefit until 70?

Since we were both receiving benefits, Social Security won’t give me estimates over the phone. Can you tell me if this sounds right? I know the SSA will take months and I’m just trying to plan. Thanks, Marina


Hi Marine, I’m sorry for your loss.

Your assumption is basically accurate. Social Security will automatically convert your spousal benefits to widow’s benefits, which will be calculated as the higher of a) your husband’s reduced Social Security retirement benefit rate, or b) 82.5% of your husband’s primary insurance amount (PIA), which is equal to his full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount.

In your case, it sounds like that will be 82.5% of your husband’s PIA, since his retirement benefit rate would be lower than that if he started drawing at age 62.

If your own retirement benefit rate will be higher than your widow’s rate, then you’d almost certainly want to continue drawing your widow’s benefits until 70, and then switch to your own higher retirement benefit rate.

If your own benefit rate wouldn’t be higher than your widow’s rate even if you wait until 70 to apply, then there’s likely no reason to ever file for your own benefits. If you file for your own Social Security retirement benefits and if your retirement benefit rate is lower than your widow’s rate, then your retirement benefits would just offset your widow’s benefits dollar for dollar. Best, Larry

Will My Spousal Benefits From The US Be Reduced Due To My Canadian Pension?

Hi Larry, My husband is receiving deferred Social Security retirement benefits, which he started receiving at 67. He is also receiving retirement benefits from the Canada Pension Plan, for work while we lived in Canada. His benefits are reduced due to the Windfall Elimination Provision.

I will be applying for Social Security spousal benefits based on my husband’s work record next year at my full retirement age of 66. I will also be receiving a small pension from CPP.

I believe that I will be receiving half of my husband’s benefits and that my spousal benefits will also be reduced because of my husband’s CPP. I would like to know if my spousal benefits will also be reduced because of my own CPP benefits or just my husband’s. Thanks, Clare

Hi Clare, Your spousal benefits won’t be reduced because of your Canadian pension. If your husband’s benefits are reduced due to the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), that reduction is applied to his primary insurance amount (PIA).

That in turn would cause your spousal rate to be lower, since spousal benefits are based on a percentage of the worker’s PIA. But your spousal rate won’t be separately reduced due to the fact that you’re receiving a Canadian pension.

A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA). If you start drawing spousal benefits at full retirement age (FRA) and if you aren’t eligible for US Social Security retirement benefits, what you’ll receive is 50% of your husband’s PIA.

If your husband waited past FRA to start drawing his US Social Security retirement benefits, then he must be receiving more than his PIA as a result of delayed retirement credits (DRC). So it sounds like your spousal rate will be somewhat less than half of your husband’s actual benefit rate. Best, Larry

How Does The Social Security Office Verify Marriage?

Hi Larry, I am marrying a woman who lost her husband in 2008. She is currently 55. She did not think about his Social Security benefits until somebody asked her about it after our private wedding last week. She learned she could be eligible at 60 or 62 if she remains unmarried but we just got married.

I asked the officiant to withhold the formal legal filing of the marriage certificate until we sort this out. Are we better off to treat our marriage as a ceremonial affair and stop completion of the certificate with our county clerk? How does Social Security office verify marriage? Thanks, Ben

Hi Ben, Social Security recognizes the laws of individual states with regard to the validity of a marriage. So if your marriage is a valid marriage based on the laws of your state, then your wife wouldn’t be able to qualify for Social Security survivor benefits on the record of her former spouse throughout the duration of your marriage.

However, if your wife was already eligible for disabled widow’s benefits from her former husband’s record at the time of your marriage, those benefits wouldn’t be terminated due to her remarriage.

You may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully analyze the options available to you and your wife with and without a remarriage. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry

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