Ask Larry: Is It True That My Widow’s Benefit Will Never Equal My Husband’s Benefit At 70?

Today’s column addresses questions about widow’s benefits when a spouse dies before full retirement age, whether continuing income will increase benefits, having worked in the US and a foreign country and the possibility of taking spousal benefits before retirement benefits. 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.


Is It True That My Widow’s Benefit Will Never Equal My Husband’s Benefit At 70?

Hi Larry, My husband died in 2018 when he was 63 and he had not started drawing his Social Security retirement benefit. His full retirement age would have been 66 and two months. I will be 60 in December. I had a phone meeting with Social Security recently to check on my widow’s benefits. I am going to continue to work and will not be eligible to draw anything due to making too much.

Can I draw my retirement benefit when I get FRA and then change over when I am 70 to my widow’s benefit and would it then be what he would have had at 70?

I was told I could not do that because he would not have any delayed retirement credits. I was told I should start drawing his when I reach FRA at what he would have drawn at FRA. My husband monthly Social Security retirement benefit amount is greater than mine. I am just making sure of this information because the lady said she didn’t know and had to ask someone. Thanks, MaryAnne

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Hi MaryAnne, I’m sorry for your loss.

Yes, it’s true that you could not accrue delayed retirement credits (DRCs) on your widow’s benefit even if you wait past full retirement age (FRA) to start drawing them. Since your husband died prior to FRA and before he started drawing his Social Security benefits, your unreduced widow’s benefit rate would be equal to 100% of your husband’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 FRA.

Whether you file for your widow’s benefits at FRA or any time after that, you couldn’t be paid more than 100% of your husband’s PIA. So it wouldn’t make sense to wait past FRA to claim your widow’s benefits.

You could file for reduced widow’s benefits as early as 60, and if you do so your widow’s rate would be reduced by 28.5% to 71.5% of your husband’s PIA. If you file for widow’s benefits between 60 and FRA, your rate would fall somewhere between 71.5% and 100% of your husband’s PIA. The applicable percentage would depend on your age at the time you claim the benefits.

However, if you’re working and earning too much then some or all of your benefits could be withheld until you reach FRA due to Social Security’s earnings test. 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 full retirement age (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 — could help sort all of this out for you so that you can determine the best strategy for maximizing your benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


As I Continue To Work And Pay Taxes, Do My Social Security Benefits Increase From Year To Year?

Hi Larry, I’m 65, collecting my Social Security retirement benefits and currently working part time. As I continue to work and pay taxes, do my Social Security retirement benefits increase from year to year? Thanks, Sean

Hi Sean, Possibly, but only if you earn more in a year than you did in one of your previous highest 35 years of Social Security covered wage-indexed earnings.

Social Security retirement benefits are based on an average of a person’s highest 35 years of Social Security covered wage-indexed earnings, so additional years of earnings only increase a person’s benefit rate if they’re higher than one or more of the 35 years currently being used to calculate the person’s benefit rate. Best, Larry


If I Worked Six Years In The UK And Four Years In The US, Will I Qualify?

Hi Larry, I am 37 years and I paid national insurance contributions in the UK for six years and Social Security taxes in the US for four years. I have heard I need to work 10 years to qualify for Social Security benefits. If I worked only for nine years, what would happen with my FICA money? Will the years from both countries be combined together to qualify for pension when I reach the qualifying age? Thanks, Vickie

Hi Vickie, The US Social Security program does have a totalization agreement with the UK, so if you had work credits in both countries you might have enough total credits to receive a totalization benefit from one or both countries.

If you have between four and nine years of US Social Security credits and six years of work credits under the UK program, you’ll likely at least qualify for a totalization benefit from the US. However, you must be at least 62 to be able to qualify for a US totalization benefit.

If you didn’t have enough credits to meet the minimum requirements, you wouldn’t be able to get a refund of the FICA taxes you’ve paid. Those taxes would simply remain in the Social Security trust fund, which is used to pay benefits to people who qualify. Best, Larry


Can I File My Social Security Spousal Benefit And Let My Retirement Benefit Grow?

Hi Larry, I was born in 1957. My husband was born in 1953 and is now getting his Social Security retirement benefit after he retired. Can I file for my spousal benefit and let my retirement benefit keep building since I am still working? Thanks, Helen

Hi Helen, You can’t, unless you have an eligible child in your care who’s drawing child benefits. Only people born prior to 1/2/1954 are allowed to file for spousal benefits without also being required to file for their own Social Security retirement benefits at the same time, and even they can only do so if they file for spousal benefits at full retirement age (FRA) or later.

So when you apply for benefits, you’ll be deemed to be applying for both your own benefits and for spousal benefits at the same time. You can only be paid essentially the higher of those two benefit rates, and your rate will be reduced if you start drawing prior to FRA.

You can still potentially increase your own benefit rate by continuing to work though, but only if you earn more in a year than you did in one of your previous 35 highest years of Social Security covered wage-indexed earnings. Social Security retirement benefits are based on an average of a person’s highest 35 years of Social Security covered wage-indexed earnings, so additional years of earnings only increase a person’s benefit rate if they’re higher than one or more of the 35 years currently being used to calculate the person’s benefit rate. Best, Larry


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