How to compare Social Security survivor vs. retirement benefits

Martha – Michigan: I have read your book but am still confused. I am currently teaching, but this may be my last year. I will reach my full retirement age on my next birthday. My husband died 10 years ago and, due to personal problems, was in and out of work the last 10 years of his life. Even so, he may have earned more money in his lifetime versus me. What advice can you give me about my Social Security options.

Phil Moeller: Your note does not say whether you’ve had Social Security payroll taxes deducted from your pay as a teacher. I’m assuming this is the case, but if not, your right to claim a survivor benefit based on your late husband’s earnings may be impacted by Social Security’s Government Pension Offset rules.

Assuming that you also qualify for your own Social Security benefits, the first thing you should do is find out how much of a survivor benefit you are entitled to at your full retirement age (FRA) and how this compares with your own retirement benefit if you waited until age 70 to claim it.

Survivor benefits reach their maximum amount at your full retirement age; retirement benefits peak at age 70.

If your survivor benefits at 66 will be larger than your own retirement benefits at 70, you should file for a survivor benefit at 66 and just keep receiving it for the rest of your life.

If, however, your retirement benefit at 70 will be larger than your survivor benefit at age 66, you should file for your survivor benefit immediately and then, when you turn 70, file for your own retirement benefit once it’s reached its maximum amount.

You can get an estimate of your retirement benefit by opening an online My Social Security account. It will show you the agency’s formal record of your wage earnings history and includes benefit projections at different claiming ages.

Unless you already have details on your late husband’s benefits, you will need to call Social Security and see if a claims representative will help you compute your survivor benefit. You will need your husband’s Social Security number and, at some point, access to your marriage certificate and his death certificate.

Once you have these details, you can make an informed claiming decision.