Ask Larry: If I Retire At 60, What Widower’s Benefit Can I Get From Social Security?

Today’s column addresses questions about how Social Security determines survivor benefit rates, how having a younger ex can affect filing options and benefit amounts and whether to claim retirement or widow’s benefits first. 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.

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If I Retire At 60, What Widower’s Benefit Can I Get From Social Security?

Hi Larry, I’m a surviving spouse. My late wife was 62 when she passed and on disability. She was drawing about $1,400 a month SSDI. If I retire at 60, what percentage of her benefit can I receive monthly? And are there any other pros and cons you could tell me about that might be helpful? Thanks, Steven

Hi Steven, I’m sorry for your loss. Eligible widows and widowers who start drawing benefits at 60 are paid 71.5% of their deceased spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA). A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA), or their full Social Security disability (SSDI) benefit rate.

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PIAs are adjusted for Social Security cost of living increases, however, so what you could potentially receive at age 60 is actually 71.5% of the what your spouse’s monthly SSDI rate would then be if she was still alive.

Whether or not you should file for survivor at age 60 though depends on the relative amounts that you could potentially receive as a survivor versus the amount that you could potentially be paid as a retirement benefit based on your own earnings history. Furthermore, if you file for benefits prior to your FRA and you’re still working, some or all of your benefits could be withheld if you earn too much.

Your best filing strategy could be either filing for reduced widow’s benefits early and then switching to your own record at 70, or filing for reduced retirement benefits on your own record early and then filing for unreduced widow’s benefits at FRA.

Normally, you would want to start out drawing the lower benefit first and then switch to the higher record when it reaches its highest potential rate. My company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — can help you explore your options and make an informed decision about when to take which benefit. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


Will My Benefit Rate Be Reduced Because My Ex-Husband Is Younger Than Me?

Hi Larry, I’m ten years older than my ex-husband of twenty years and I’m starting to file for retirement benefits. I’m getting conflicting information about how much my spousal benefit should be since my ex-husband is not retirement age. Will my benefit be reduced due to my ex-husband not being at full retirement age? Thanks, Helen

Hi Helen, Your ex-husband’s age wouldn’t be a factor in determining your benefit rate as a divorced spouse, but you can’t qualify for divorced spousal benefits while your ex-spouse is living unless both of you are at least 62 or if your ex-spouse is drawing Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits.

If you’re 10 years older than your ex-spouse, and assuming that he isn’t disabled, then you’ll have reached full retirement age (FRA) before your ex reaches age 62. So it sounds like any divorced spousal benefits that you could collect would not be reduced for age.

However, you could only qualify for divorced spousal benefits if your ex’s primary insurance amount (PIA), which is equal to his full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount, is more than twice as much as your own PIA. And if you start drawing your own benefits prior to FRA, you’ll keep the resulting reduction in your benefit rate for as long as both you and your ex are still living. Best, Larry


Is There A Lawyer Who Could Help Me Sort Our My Benefit Options?

Hi Larry, I lost my husband in 1987. I’m now 62 and still working. Should I file for my Social Security retirement benefit now and switch over to my widow’s benefits at my full retirement age? My husband was the main wage earner. I have been trying to get a lawyer to help me sort this all out, is there such a person? Thanks, Teri

Hi Tery. I’m sorry for your loss. Virtually all of the attorneys who specialize in Social Security law concentrate on disability benefits. It shouldn’t be necessary for you to have an attorney to determine your best plan for claiming Social Security benefits, though.

If you’re positive that your unreduced widow’s benefit rate would be higher than your own Social Security retirement benefit rate even if you delayed filing for your own benefits until 70, then you would likely want to a) claim your own benefits now or as soon as your earnings would allow you to be paid at least some benefits, and b) file for unreduced widow’s benefits when you reach your full retirement age (FRA).

However, if your own benefit rate at 70 would be higher than your unreduced widow’s benefit rate, then you’d likely want to claim widow’s benefits first and wait until 70 to claim your own benefits.

Whether or not you could draw benefits right now depends on your potential benefit rate and the amount that you’re earning. Social Security’s earnings test would require withholding $1 of your benefits for each $2 that you earn in excess of $18,960 this year. Best, Larry


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