Social Security survivor benefits and “deeming” rules

Lisa: I am a widow and will be 60 in two months. I was married to my husband for 12 years. He died in 1993, and I have never remarried. I want to apply for survivor’s benefits to get my late husband’s Social Security benefits. I want to postpone taking my own until after I am 66. Is there anything that I should be concerned about before I start the application process? I know Social Security is very complex, and I want to avoid making any mistakes.

Phil Moeller: Unlike other claiming situations, survivor benefits do not trigger Social Security’s “deeming” rules. This means you can file for a survivor benefit without also triggering a claim for your own retirement benefits at the same time. Alternatively, you can file for retirement without triggering your survivor claim. Because of this, it’s important for you to learn how your survivor benefits will compare with your own retirement benefits.

While you can take survivor benefits as early as age 60, they will be reduced at that claiming age and don’t reach their maximum value unless you wait until your full retirement age to claim them.

Your own retirement benefits, by contrast, can be claimed as early as age 62, but will grow in value by 7 to 8 percent a year for each year you delay claiming them until you turn 70, when they reach their maximum value.

I would begin by figuring out the values of these two benefits at different claiming ages. You can open an online “my Social Security” account to help you with these calculations. It would also help if you can get access to your late husband’s work history or have someone from Social Security help you calculate your widow’s benefit at different claiming ages.

If your retirement benefit will be the larger of the two, then you should file for your widow’s benefit as soon as you turn 60. While it will be reduced, you know now that you will shift to your larger retirement benefit later. In that case, the cumulative amount of these reduced survivor payments will still be maximized by beginning them right away.

On the other hand, if your widow’s payments are going to be larger than your own retirement benefits, you would want to delay taking them until they reach their maximum amount at your full retirement age. In this case, you would begin taking your own retirement benefit at 62 (the earliest you can do so) and then switch to your survivor benefit at your full retirement age.

Whatever you decide, make sure you express your claiming preferences very clearly to Social Security. I prefer face-to-face meetings in a Social Security office, but understand that it can be difficult to schedule appointments.