Q & A

Ask Rusty – Working Widow Seeks to Maximize Social Security Benefits

Dear Rusty: I was widowed years ago and, when I approached age 60, I looked into Social Security survivor benefits based on my late husband’s record. He started receiving Social Security shortly before he died at $1,200 per month. My income at age 60 was $42,000 and, since Social Security would keep $1 for every $2 above the limit (around $15,000 at that time), I did not apply. Next year I will reach my full retirement age of 66½, but I plan to work until I am 70. Will I be able to receive full survivor benefits next year if I continue to work? I plan to switch to my own Social Security benefit at age 70, which will be higher than my husband received. Since I am waiting to apply for survivor benefits, will there be an increase in the amount I receive? I am a municipal employee and when I retire, I will collect from the state retirement system. I paid into the state retirement system and also paid Social Security taxes, so will my state pension have any impact on my Social Security?

Signed: Still Working

Dear Still Working: Congratulations on having an excellent strategy for maximizing your survivor benefit as well as your personal SS retirement benefit. Once you reach your full retirement age (FRA) next year, you are no longer subject to Social Security’s “earnings test” and can collect Social Security benefits without those benefits being affected by your work earnings.

Your surviving spouse benefit will be more because you are waiting until your full retirement age to claim it. At your FRA you can claim your full survivor benefit from your deceased husband (without reduction) and collect only that while still allowing your personal SS retirement benefit to grow to maximum when you are 70. Then, at age 70, you can switch from your smaller survivor benefit to your maximum SS retirement benefit and collect that higher amount for the rest of your life. Essentially, your survivor benefit reaches maximum at your FRA and your personal SS retirement benefit reaches maximum at age 70.

Note that you should apply for your benefits a couple of months before you wish them to start. For example, if you reach your FRA in May of next year you can apply for your survivor benefit in February or March, specifying that you wish your survivor benefit to begin in May 2024 at your full retirement age. Just be sure to emphasize that you are applying only for your survivor benefit and wish your personal SS retirement benefit to continue to grow by earning Delayed Retirement Credits (DRCs) until you are 70. 

You cannot apply for your survivor benefit online, so you will need to call Social Security, at either the national number (1.800.772.1213) or your local Social Security office, to make an appointment to apply for your benefit as your husband’s widow.

And to answer your last question, your state pension won’t affect your monthly Social Security payments because you paid Social Security FICA payroll taxes from your municipal earnings. 

This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at [email protected].

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