Can my friend get retroactive survivor benefits from Social Security?


Q. I have a friend who is 72. He worked 45 years as a mailman and retired under civil service so he didn’t make Social Security contributions. His first wife was a registered nurse and she did make contributions to Social Security. She died about 15 years ago after 20 years of marriage. He has since remarried and has received letters from Social Security, but he’s been ignoring them. I’m trying to convince him to contact Social Security thinking he might be eligible for a portion of her benefits. Am I right?
— Trying to help

A. Thank you for trying to help your friend.

Generally, you need to be married for at least nine months before a spouse dies to be eligible for widow/widower/survivor benefits.

Your friend was married for 30 years so he’s met this threshold, said Jeanne Kane, a financial planner with JFL Total Wealth Management in Boonton.

Now that he’s remarried, the time of his remarriage is what matters.

“If he married before he turned 60, then he’s not eligible for survivor/widower benefits from his first wife,” Kane said.

She said she usually recommends widows(ers) wait to wed.

“Forcing widows and widowers to wait until they’re 60 to remarry is essentially a Social Security marriage penalty,” she said.

If he remarried after he turned 60, how much could he get?

Kane said the Government Pension Offset (GPO) may limit his benefit.

“It’s a system designed to limit Social Security benefits to people who didn’t pay into the system because they worked for the government and receive government pensions,” she said. “The goal of GPO was to stop double dipping by government employees who had not paid into the Social Security system.”

If your friend is eligible for his first wife’s Social Security benefits, the payout would be reduced by two-thirds of his government pension.
Kane offered this example:

Assume his pension is $1,500 per month. Two-thirds is $1,000. If he’s eligible for a $2,000 widower benefit, then he would get $1,000 from Social Security ($2,000- $1,000).

If his first wife’s benefits were less than two-thirds of his pension, he would get nothing from Social Security, Kane said.

“If he dies and his current wife receives Social Security, the GPO will not apply to her,” Kane said. “Assuming that your friend chose a joint and survivor payout pension option, the wife should get survival benefits from his pension as well as her own full Social Security.”

Let’s take it a step further

If your friend’s second wife dies, he can’t claim benefits from both wives. Only one. If his first wife’s benefits are higher, he should choose to receive those, Kane said.

As far as getting retroactive benefits, he could be eligible for up to six months of benefits, depending on when he files. Kane said he needs to file for retroactive benefits after the widow(er)’s Full Retirement Age (FRA).

“FRA is the age when you are entitled to 100 percent of your Social Security benefits,” Kane said. “Full retirement age for survivors is 66 for people born between 1945 and 1956 and gradually increases to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later.”

He would not be eligible for retroactive benefits if he applied earlier than the FRA.

If you apply less than six months after you reach FRA, you’ll only get retroactive benefits back to the month you reached FRA, she said. So, if FRA is 66 and you apply at 66 and 4 months, you only get four months retroactive.

“At 72, your friend is older than his FRA and so he should be eligible for up to six months retroactive,” she said.

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This story was originally published on June 22, 2020. 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.