When can a widow take Social Security?

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Q. My daughter’s husband died. I said she can start getting his Social Security payments, but she said Social Security said no. What are the rules?
— Trying to help

A. We’re sorry to hear about the loss of your son-in-law.

The rules around the Social Security survivor benefit are generally governed by the age of the surviving spouse and the number of Social Security credits that the decedent paid into the system over their working life, said Chadderdon O’Brien, a certified financial planner with RegentAtlantic in Morristown.

He said the earliest a survivor can begin to claim benefits on their deceased spouse’s record is age 60. For disabled survivors, the earliest they can begin collecting benefits is age 50.

There is, however, a significant reduction in benefits for survivors who begin to claim benefits prior to their respective full retirement ages, he said.

“For most people, full retirement age is somewhere between 66 and 67,” O’Brien said. “If your daughter is age 54 or younger, her full retirement age is 67. This is an important point because for a survivor to begin benefits at age 60, a reduction of almost 30 percent is applied to their annual benefits.”

Because Social Security advised that your daughter cannot receive benefits now, O’Brien said he’d assume she is younger than 60 years old. And, she may be eligible for benefits in the future.

“So long as she does not remarry before the age of 60 she’ll be entitled to her husband’s benefit after she reaches the age threshold,” he said. “Regardless of your daughter’s age, she is entitled to a one time death benefit of $255. She needs to apply for this benefit within two years from the date of death.”

O’Brien said her eligibility to receive survivor benefits also assumes her husband accrued enough Social Security credits. In 2016, one credit equates to $1,260 in wages or self-employment income, O’Brien said, and you can earn up to four credits each year.

The number of credits needed to be eligible depends on her husband’s age when he died, he said.

“Generally, the younger a person is when they die the fewer credits they’ll need for their family to be eligible for survivor benefits,” he said. “The maximum number of credits any individual needs is 40, or 10 years of work.”

For folks who pass away at a very young age and haven’t accrued 40 credits, the credit criteria states the decedent must have been employed for 1 1/2 years during the three-year period prior to death for their survivors to be eligible for benefits, O’Brien said. This is especially important when children are part of the equation.

In the future, O’Brien said, there may be planning strategies available around your daughter’s survivor benefit relative to her personal retirement benefit.

“In the event she meets the criteria to review benefits under both programs, she could conceivably receive benefits under the survivor program from age 67 through age 70,” he said. “At age 70, she could then switch to her personal retirement benefit and take advantage of the delayed retirement credits associated with the deferral of her retirement benefit beyond her full retirement age.”

Even though these considerations are probably many years away, they’re certainly worth a review to make sure she optimizes her lifetime benefits.

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This post was first published in October 2016.

NJMoneyHelp.com 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.