The widow or widower’s guide to Social Security benefits

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The loss of a spouse is devastating, and in that situation, the last thing you want to worry about is money.

Unfortunately, as a widow or widower, money is often one of the most important things to think about. And Social Security benefits are usually one of the first — and trickiest — financial resources to navigate.

To help you wade through these waters, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to Social Security survivors benefits.

The breakdown of Social Security benefits

If you’re an eligible age and meet other qualifications, Social Security benefits are available to you after your spouse passes away. But it can be tough figuring out if you can receive these benefits and when you should start. Here are some of the main factors that impact how much survivors benefits you’re entitled to:

  • The length of the marriage
  • Your age and your spouse’s age
  • When you want to start receiving benefits

Understanding these factors and the rules to which they apply can help you make informed decisions and maximize your benefits payments.

The length of the marriage matters

In nearly every case, you need to have been married for at least nine months to claim Social Security survivors benefits. However, there are a few exceptions:

  • You share a child. If you were married fewer than nine months but your spouse was the parent of your child, you can claim survivors benefits.
  • It was an accident. Accidental death can waive the nine-month requirement for Social Security benefits.
  • Military service. If your spouse dies in the line of active duty for the military, you are entitled to survivors benefits.

What if you were married more than nine months and later divorced? Surprisingly, you can receive survivors benefits from an ex-spouse if you were married for at least 10 years. In fact, if you were married for at least 10 years to more than one ex-spouse who is now deceased, you can choose the biggest benefit. But if you remarried before the age of 60 and are still married, you cannot receive these benefits.

Also, any amount you do receive may be shared with other family members who are also entitled to survivors benefits.

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The impact of age

We all know that there are age requirements for collecting Social Security benefits, and those rules remain intact for survivors benefits. Survivors benefits are first available when you turn 60, but you stand to collect more benefits if you wait until full retirement age at 66 (if you were born before 1957) or 67 (if you were born in 1957 or later). Here’s a look at how age affects your Social Security survivors benefits:

  • Receiving benefits at age 60. If you start collecting Social Security benefits at age 60, you will receive only 60% of the full benefit.
  • Receiving benefits at full retirement age. If you can afford to wait until you’re 66 or 67, you can collect 100% of the benefits available.
  • Deferring benefits until age 70. After you reach full retirement age, you can elect to defer your benefits until age 70. This lets you accrue delayed retirement credits, which could increase your benefits payments.
  • Receiving benefits with a disability. If you are disabled, you can start collecting benefits at age 50. But the disability must have started before or within seven years of your spouse’s passing.

If you don’t need Social Security benefits right away to stay financially sound during retirement, consider waiting as long as possible for the most benefits.

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The decision of when to start collecting benefits

Because the benefits payment increases with time, it’s smart to look at your budget and determine if you need to start collecting benefits immediately. Another important thing to note is that you can only collect one Social Security benefit — your spouse’s or your own. But you can switch from one to the other.

If you are still working, or plan to work until full retirement age, consider taking your spouse’s survivors benefits when they are available and then switching to your full benefits when you retire. This can get tricky, though, so it’s important to pay attention to a few financial areas:

  • Watch your paycheck. If you have yet to retire and are working and collecting survivors benefits, pay attention to your annual income. If you earn over a certain level, Social Security will withhold part of your benefits.
  • Keep taxes in mind. You may end up paying taxes on a much larger portion of your benefits if you work while collecting Social Security benefits.
  • Note who was the higher earner. Because the higher earner will have the larger Social Security benefit payout, determine which benefits will ultimately pay you more over the remainder of your life. If you are the higher earner, it’s smart to tap into survivors benefits as soon as possible and make the switch when you’re eligible for your own benefits at full retirement age. If your spouse earned more, think about collecting your benefits (even at a reduced rate), and then switching to survivors benefits when you reach full retirement age.

Sorting through the ins and outs of Social Security survivors benefits isn’t easy, especially after suffering the loss of your spouse. But a solid understanding of what you can receive and how to maximize those benefits can make your transition to single living somewhat easier. Before making any decisions, you should consult an expert—either a Social Security representative or a financial planner you trust. They can guide you through all the regulations and paperwork to make sure you’re taken care of.

Jane Young is a principal with It’s Not Just Money, Inc. in Colorado Springs and a member of NAPFA, the country’s leading professional association of Fee-Only financial planners. She is also an Enrolled Agent with the IRS and specializes in working with widows. Jane holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and an MBA in finance from the University of Colorado.

Credit.com is a USA TODAY content partner offering personal finance news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

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