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Wealth & Well-Being

Have you been underpaid? What Widows need to know about Social Security

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The Social Security Administration recently reported that it had underpaid $224 million to about 25,000 widows and widowers. In a random sample of this group, it found that 82 percent could have gotten a higher monthly benefit if they had claimed survivor benefits first and delayed claiming their own retirement benefits until age 70. The audit also found no evidence that SSA employees informed the people about their option to delay their retirement benefits to age 70, which is required. If you believe that you have been underpaid, we recommend contacting your local social security office to determine if they will give you any retroactive benefits.

Widow’s social security benefits are complex so we recommend that you call or visit your local SSA branch to get an initial determination of your options and then get a second opinion with an expert on social security claiming strategies to help you fully understand your benefit.

The summary below outlines the key factors for receiving a Widow’s benefit:

  1. When your husband (or ex dies), you’re probably due a widow’s survivor benefit from Social Security.
  2. You can receive full benefits at full retirement age “FRA” for survivors or reduced benefits as early as age 60.
  3. You can begin receiving benefits as early as age 50 if you are disabled and the disability started before or within seven years of the worker's death.
  4. If you are caring for a child of the deceased's who is under the age of 16, additional benefits may be available even if you have not reached age 60.
  5. You are also due a $255 one-time death benefit if you were living with your husband when he died.
  6. 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.
  7. Social Security pays you your own retirement benefit first, then supplements it with whatever extra benefits you are due as a widow. This increases your Social Security benefit up to the “widow’s rate”.
  8. If you worked and are eligible for your own Social Security benefit, consider filing a Restricted Application to boost your benefit.
    1. This allows you to claim a widow benefit first, while allowing your own benefit to continue to accumulate delayed retirement credits. At age 70 you could then switch over to claiming your own, now larger, benefit amount or vice versa.
    2. When you delay claiming your own benefit, your benefit payment increases by 8 percent annually from your full retirement age (age 65 to 67, depending on when you were born) up to your age 70. Survivor benefits do not increase.
    3. Compare the two benefits, that is, the widow’s benefit if taken at Full Retirement Age “FRA” and the retirement benefit if taken at age 70. The benefit at age 70 can be calculated by multiplying 1.32 times the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). The PIA is the amount that would have been received had benefits started at Full Retirement Age. Take the higher amount last and the lower amount in the meantime.

If your deceased spouse had already begun benefits...

  • and had begun benefits before they reached their FRA, then you as the surviving spouse are entitled to the larger of what your deceased spouse was getting, or 82.5% of their PIA amount, (this is the amount they would have received had they begun benefits at their FRA). This benefit amount is subject to a reduction if you have not yet reached your FRA. (82.5% of their PIA will be more than what they would have gotten if they began benefits at age 62, so this rule is in place to protect a surviving spouse from a permanently lower income if their other half began benefits at age 62.)
  • and had begun benefits at their FRA or later, you as the surviving spouse are entitled to what your deceased spouse was getting, including any delayed retirement credits, subject to a reduction if you claim before reaching your FRA (or a surviving spouse could collect their own benefit, if larger).

Note 1: If you are also getting your own benefits, you get the larger of the widow/widower benefit or your own - not both.

Note 2: The schedule to determine your FRA is slightly different for retirement benefits than for widow/widower's benefits.

Note 3: If you begin benefits before you attain FRA, and you continue to work, if your earnings exceed the Social Security earnings limit a portion of your benefits will be held back. Once you reach FRA this reduction no longer applies and your benefit will be recalculated to begin repaying the portion that was held back.

Audit Report – Office of the Inspector General


Social Security Administration - https://www.ssa.gov/planners/survivors/onyourown.html

Social Security Administration - https://www.ssa.gov/planners/retire/claiming.html

Who will be affected? If you turn 62 on or after January 2, 2016, and will be eligible for benefits both as a retired worker and as a spouse (or divorced spouse), then the new law applies to you. Deemed filing applies to retirement benefits, not to survivor’s benefits. So, if you are a widow or widower, you may start your survivor benefit independently of your retirement benefit if you restrict the scope of your application. There are also some exceptions to deemed filing. For example, deemed filing does not apply if you receive spouse's benefits and are also entitled to disability, or if you are receiving spousal benefits because you are caring for the retired worker’s child. If you have questions about your specific situation, contact Social Security.




Written by Robin Young, CFP®

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