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Ask Bob: Claiming Social Security Widow Benefits Before Full Retirement Age

Our expert answers a reader's question about claiming Social Security widow benefits before reaching full retirement age.

Question

My husband passed away two years ago and I was told by Social Security I can’t draw his benefits till I reach age 66 and four months if I want to take his full retirement amount. From what I’ve read, it sounds like I can be drawing my own Social Security for now — which is much less than his — and then draw his full amount at 66 and four months. Where can I go to get help in the state of Virginia? I’ve gotten three different answers from Social Security here in the Roanoke area and if I make a mistake that could affect my future earnings. Thank you so much. I wish they didn’t make this so complicated.

Answer

It seems to me that she has been given accurate information by the folks at Social Security, says Kurt Czarnowski, principal, Czarnowski Consulting. “If she wants to receive a widow's payment equal to 100% of her deceased husband's benefit, then she must wait until her Full Retirement Age (FRA) to claim it.” He explains, “She can opt to start collecting prior to her FRA, but if she does that, then her monthly payment amount gets reduced.”

Czarnowski adds, “She is also correct when she says that she can collect a reduced retirement benefit based on her own work record, and then switch to a full, unreduced survivor benefit at her FRA.” (In addition, it is important to note that for people born between 1955 and 1961, FRA for retirement benefits and FRA for survivor benefits are not the same.)

“Keep in mind, though,” says Czarnowski, “if she is under her FRA and working, she is going to be subject to an annual earnings limitation which may impact her ability to collect.” [In 2022, anyone under FRA is allowed to earn up to $19,560 without any loss of benefits.] The SSA is required to withhold $1 in benefits for every $2 that the person exceeds the threshold, and so, he adds, “depending on how much she is making, she may not be able to collect anything, even if she wanted to do so. The earnings limitation does go away effective with the month the person reaches FRA.”

“Unfortunately, I am not aware of anyone in the Roanoke, VA, area who might be able to help. If she feels that she is being given incorrect information, my only suggestion would be to have her call her local office and ask to speak to a supervisor. Some offices may also have a person called a "Technical Expert" on staff who should be able to help.”

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Question

My husband passed away two years ago and I was told by Social Security I can’t draw his benefits till I reach age 66 and four months if I want to take his full retirement amount. From what I’ve read, it sounds like I can be drawing my own Social Security for now — which is much less than his — and then draw his full amount at 66 and four months. Where can I go to get help in the state of Virginia? I’ve gotten three different answers from Social Security here in the Roanoke area and if I make a mistake that could affect my future earnings. Thank you so much. I wish they didn’t make this so complicated.

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