Ask Larry: Can My Wife Take Social Security Retirement Benefits And Then Widow’s Benefits If I Die?

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Today’s column addresses questions about a spouse taking retirement benefits on their own record before potentially taking survivor’s benefits, when to apply in order to begin receiving benefits in a certain month and when spousal benefits may be available. 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 My Wife Take Social Security Retirement Benefits And Then Widow’s Benefits If I Die?

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Hi Larry, I was born in April 1951 and my PIA was $2,453. I plan to wait until 2021 at 70 to file for for my Social Security retirement benefit when it’s estimated to be around $3,479. I was married longer than 10 years and she is already collecting her Social Security retirement benefit.

My current wife turned 62 in 8/2020 and her PIA is $1,732 and will grow to $2,402 at 66 and eight months. I have read your book and if I understand right, she can collect her retirement benefit and then if i pass away first, she can switch to her widow’s benefit based on my record.

I want to maximize our benefits and so plan to apply in 4/2021. Am I entitled to a benefit the month of my death? When would be the best age for my wife to start her retirement benefit? Thanks, Robert

Hi Robert, Yes, your wife could potentially start drawing her own retirement benefits as early as 62 and then get survivor’s benefits if you die before her. She wouldn’t actually switch to drawing just survivor benefits instead of her own benefits, though. Instead, she’d continue to get her own benefit plus an excess widow’s benefit. As long as your wife is at least full retirement age (FRA) when she starts drawing as a widow though, her own benefit rate plus her excess survivor rate would add up to your full benefit rate. And if you wait until 70 to start drawing your benefits, your wife’s combined retirement & widow’s amounts would add up to your full age 70 rate.

If your wife does file for her benefits before you reach 70, you could file just for spousal benefits and then switch to your own benefits at 70. You don’t mention whether or not your wife is working, but if she is and if she earns more than the Social Security earnings test exempt amount, then both her benefits and your spousal benefits would be subject to full or partial withholding. If your wife files this year, Social Security would need to withhold $1 of the benefits payable from her record, including spousal benefits, for each $2 that she earns in excess of $18,240 in 2020.

Regarding your other questions, no you wouldn’t be due a benefit payment for your month of death. For example, if you died on June 30th, your benefit payment for June that Social Security normally pays in July would need to be returned if paid. As for when your wife should file for her benefits, that’s a personal decision which depends on whether or not she’s working and if so how much she earns, and her thoughts regarding her and your maximum lifespans. You and your wife may want to try my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to analyze all of your various options so that you can determine your best overall filing strategy. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


How Should I Answer The Application Question Asking What Month Benefits Should Start?

Hi Larry, The question on the Social Security application reads “Benefits should start in ?” The options range from 1/20 to 11/20, with no option for 12/20. My birthday is 10/23/1950. If I answer 11/20, will I receive a check in November? My understanding Is that for Social Security purpose, I am considered 70 on 10/1/20 and should receive my first check in November. But how do I ensure that will happen? Thanks, Philip

Hi Philip, When you answer that question you should choose 10/2020 in order to receive your full age 70 rate. Your payment will then be scheduled to be paid in November. For benefit calculation purposes, Social Security considers you to be 70 for the entire month in which you reach that age. Social Security pays benefits a month behind though, so benefit payments for October are paid in November. And because you were born after the 20th of the month, your regular payment date will be on the 4th Wednesday of each month. Best, Larry


Can My Wife File For Spousal Benefits Off Of My Record At 62?

Hi Larry, believe it or not, we’ve only recently heard of the potential availability of spousal benefits but we know the law has changed recently and that some people are now not able to get them even if they could before. Would it be possible for my wife to take spousal benefits as early as 62? Thanks, Ben

Hi Ben, Possibly. Your wife could apply for spousal benefits as early as 62 provided that you’re drawing your retirement benefits. However, if your wife applies for spousal benefits she’ll be deemed to be applying for her own Social Security retirement benefits at the same time, and she could only be paid essentially the higher of those two benefit rates. Also, if your wife is working and earning too much, then some or all of her benefits may need to be withheld until she reaches full retirement age (FRA) due to the Social Security earnings test. Best, Larry


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