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Social Security Planning with Widow(er) Benefits

A reader writes in, asking:

“My husband passed away a few years ago. I’m currently 59. Do the claiming strategies discussed in your book change at all for somebody who would be receiving widow benefits instead of spouse benefits?”

Yes, they do change. The easiest way to explain the difference, though, is to first back up and discuss a rule that applies to couples in which both spouses are still alive.

If you are eligible for your own retirement benefit and a spousal benefit, and you file for either of the two, you are automatically “deemed” to have filed for the other benefit as well. You have no choice in the matter. (There’s an exception if you were born 1/1/1954 or earlier and you have reached full retirement age.)

Deemed Filing Doesn’t Apply to Widow(er) Benefits

The deemed filing rule does not, however, apply to widow(er) benefits. As a result, there are two possible Social Security claiming strategies that often make sense for somebody whose spouse has passed away:

  1. At age 60, you could claim a widow(er) benefit while allowing your own retirement benefit to grow until 70.
  2. Or, you could claim your own retirement benefit at 62 while allowing your widow(er) benefit to grow until full retirement age.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the ideal strategy will be to allow the larger benefit to continue growing until it maxes out (either at FRA or at age 70, depending upon which benefit it is) and to claim the other (smaller) benefit as early as possible.

A key point here is to keep the earnings test in mind. If you are younger than full retirement age and you are still working, then depending on your earnings level it may make sense to delay filing (i.e., delay filing for the earlier benefit, whichever benefit that is in your case) until the earnings test would no longer result in withholding. Depending on circumstances, that could mean waiting until your FRA, January of the year in which you reach your FRA, or the month after the month you retire.

Considering a Second Marriage?

Also of note: If you get remarried before age 60, you will (except in cases of disability) lose eligibility for widow(er) benefits based on your first spouse’s work record. (Exception: if you get divorced from your second spouse or if your second spouse dies you will again become eligible on your first, deceased spouse’s work record.)

Of course, the usefulness of this information varies greatly depending on the age at which you find your new partner. If you’re only 50, waiting for 10 years is probably not the most palatable option. But if you’re 59 ½ and weighing the pros and cons of various wedding dates, it’s probably worth including Social Security in the discussion.

Want to Learn More about Social Security? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Social Security cover Social Security Made Simple: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Related Planning Topics Explained in 100 Pages or Less
Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How retirement benefits, spousal benefits, and widow(er) benefits are calculated,
  • How to decide the best age to claim your benefit,
  • How Social Security benefits are taxed and how that affects tax planning,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"An excellent review of various facts and decision-making components associated with the Social Security benefits. The book provides a lot of very useful information within small space."
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