Personal Finance

The Widow’s Guide to Social Security Benefits

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As a Certified Financial Planner™, I work with a lot of widows trying to navigate the tricky world of Social Security benefits after their spouse passes away.

Social Security provides you, as a widow, with a choice between your own Social Security benefit based on your work history, and a survivor’s benefit based on your deceased spouse’s work history. Social Security is gender neutral, therefore this information applies to both widows and widowers.

When You Can Start Taking Benefits

You are entitled to 100% of your deceased spouse’s benefit at full retirement or you can take reduced benefits as early as age 60. If you are disabled, you can begin taking benefits at 50. The full retirement age is 66 if you were born between 1945 and 1956, and gradually increases up to 67 if you were born between 1957 and 1960. The normal retirement age for everyone born after 1960 is 67.

As a widow, you have the option to begin taking benefits based on your own earnings record and later switch to survivor’s benefits, or you can begin with survivor’s benefits and later switch to benefits based on your own record. While collecting survivor’s benefits, you can earn delayed retirement credit on your own Social Security, but you cannot earn delayed retirement credit on survivor’s benefits.

Unfortunately, at any given time you have to select either survivor’s benefits or your own benefits, you are not entitled to both. Don’t wait beyond 70 to begin taking Social Security because there is no additional increase in the benefit after age 70. If you were already receiving Social Security benefits before your spouse’s death, you can call Social Security to see if you will earn more money collecting survivor’s benefits.

Generally, you cannot get survivor’s benefits if you remarry before age 60. After age 60 remarriage does not impact your survivor’s benefits. At age 62 you are entitled to benefits based on a new spouse’s work record, if those would be higher. If other family members are entitled to survivor’s benefits, be aware that there is a limit to the total amount that can be paid to a family.

Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should

Generally, if you plan to keep working, you can cover your current expenses, and you are in reasonably good health, you should delay taking Social Security benefits until full retirement. If you take Social Security or survivor’s benefits before your normal retirement age and you earn over a certain level, Social Security will withhold part of your benefit.

In 2013, Social Security will withhold $1 in benefits for every $2 of earnings above $15,120, and $1 in benefits for every $3 of earnings above $40,080 in the year you reach full retirement age. However, when you reach full retirement age your benefit is recalculated to give you credit for the benefits that were withheld as a result of earning above the exempt amount.

Once you reach normal retirement age, you can keep working and your benefits will not be reduced regardless of your earnings. However, if you are still working while taking Social Security, you may end up paying taxes on a much larger portion of your benefits.

Taking Social Security early also results in a reduced benefit based on the number of months you receive Social Security before your normal retirement age. If you were born in 1960 and you take benefits at 62 your maximum reduction would be around 30%. You may be able to begin by taking a reduced survivor’s benefit before your normal retirement age, and then switch to an unreduced benefit based on your own earnings record, at full retirement age.

What Could Reduce Your Benefits?

If you receive a pension from a job you held with a government entity and you did not pay Social Security tax, your Social Security survivor’s benefit may be reduced. Additionally, if you collect Social Security benefits based on your own work history and you earned a pension from a job in which you didn’t pay Social Security, the Windfall Elimination Provision may reduce your Social Security benefit. Be sure to discuss this with your Social Security representative when you file for benefits.

Social Security can be extremely complex and widows have many opportunities to optimize their benefits. Before filing for Social Security, please research the options available to you and meet with a Social Security representative to fully understand your choices.

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  • Credit Experts

    A widow eligible for benefits can start receiving them as early as age 60, with benefits reduced slightly for every month under age 70. You can find more here:

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Linda – Collecting social security benefits is a huge decision and many people make costly mistakes. I urge you to check out this site for helpful information: Don’t rely solely oh the Social Security website or you may end up getting less than you could if you maximize your benefits.

    • veronicas

      Warning above website is soley her advertising a company

      • Gerri Detweiler

        Linda – He does sell software to help consumers maximize Social Security benefits but he also has a good book you should be able to get for free at your local library.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Have you seen this calculator? It may be very helpful to your mother. This is a vary important decision and it is important she gets it right:

  • Credit Experts

    Your mother doesn’t have to reach full retirement age to collect benefits, though they are reduced slightly for each month younger than 66. The SSA explains it here:

  • kim

    I am 47 and didn’t work. My husband was 52 when he passed. We have no kids. He was my sole support. I’m not disabled and he had no kids. Am I able to get anything?

    • Credit Experts

      Kim —
      Our condolences on the loss of your husband.

      The Social Security Administration has an information page here:
      It says “Widows are due between 71 percent (at age 60) and 100 percent (at full retirement age) of what the husband was getting before he died.” You may also be eligible for a one-time death benefit of $255. Hopefully, your husband carried life insurance, which should also help.

  • Gerri Detweiler


    The Social Security Administration website guide to survivor’s benefits should provide you with more details as you navigate this process. Our condolences for your loss.

  • lora

    I took out a student loan, will the goverment take out my student loan payments out of my died husband social security check that I will be receving

    • Credit Experts

      Lora —
      Our condolence on the death of your husband. In answer to your question, SSI (Supplemental Security Income, a program designed to help low-income people) is completely protected, but survivor benefits may not be if these were federal student loans. You can read more here: My Social Security Income Is Being Zapped for Student Loans!.

  • Felicia Hackney

    My grandmother is terrified to keep very much of her widows pention in her bank out of fear of it being taken from her for having to much can anyone help me find out if her fears are realistic

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Does she have a judgment against her? I am not sure what you mean by her fear of having too much…

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