How a widow can maximize Social Security

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 Q. I’m 61, and my husband died when he was 64. He hadn’t started taking Social Security yet. How can I decide the best way to take benefits?

A. We’re sorry to hear about your husband.

Before you can make a decision, you need to understand your potential benefits and the benefits that were projected for your husband.

“If you’ve worked for 10 years and earned at least 40 work credits — you receive work credits based on annual earnings and you can earn up to four credits per year –you would be vested in the Social Security system,” said Jim Marchesi, a certified financial planner with Mill Ridge Wealth Management in Chester.

He said Social Security retirement benefits are based on the percentage of your average monthly wage using a 35-year base of earnings. If you don’t have 35 years of earnings, they count non-earning years as $0.

So, you’d have to determine which is more valuable — yours or your husband’s projected benefit — so you can sequence the payments correctly, Marchesi said.

He said a widow can collect between 71 percent (at age 60) and 100 percent (at full retirement age) of what the husband was supposed to receive in Social Security benefits.

The survivor benefit is based on the insured’s worker’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA).

“To be eligible, the surviving spouse must be at least age 60 (50 if disabled) and was married to the deceased at least nine months and/or is the parent of the insured’s child,” Marchesi said.

For people born between 1943 and 1954, which is the category you fall in, the Full Retirement Age is 66 years old.

“So, for example, if you can wait until age 66 before you start and receive Survivor Benefits, you will receive 100 percent of your husband’s benefit,” Marchesi said. “If you have other sources of income and/or assets to help meet expenses, it would be beneficial to delay the Survivor payment, as Social Security benefits increase approximately 7 percent per year. They stop increasing at age 70, so you would not want to delay past that age.”

So, this brings us to the critical point of calculations. If you earned 40 work credits and your earnings were less than your husband’s, you would have a Social Security benefit based on your own earnings record and could start your own reduced benefit at age 62, then switch to the Survivor payout to receive a higher payout, Marchesi said. If you earned more than your husband, it might make sense to start the Survivor payment at 62 and delay your benefit.

“Obviously, longevity is the key variable that is impossible to determine,” Marchesi said.

Indeed, if you claim the benefit early, you would collect benefits for a longer period of time, but those benefits would be reduced, said Jody D’Agostini, a certified financial planner with AXA Advisors/The Falcon Financial Group in Morristown.

“If you are in good health and have longevity in the family and can afford to, it might be wiser to postpone the start,” she said.

She agrees that it’s key to know what your the survivor benefit would be and how that compares to your own benefit.

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This story was first posted in May 2015. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.