I was 63 when my second husband died last year, and I took his Social Security benefit. I got a penalty because I wasn't 66 years old. Three questions: Was a penalty warranted for a widow? Could I instead have collected on my first husband's record? We were married for over 10 years. He's still working, hasn't taken Social Security, and has remarried. Finally, can I let my own Social Security benefit grow until I'm 70 then switch to that if it's higher?

Any Social Security benefit that you start collecting before your full retirement age is permanently reduced. The only exception is for people who are disabled. As a 63-year-old widow, you could only receive 85.8 percent of the benefit your late husband was collecting, or was eligible to collect, when he died.

Could you instead collect a benefit based on your living ex-spouse's work record? Yes, if:  

1) Your marriage lasted at least 10 years;

2) You're unmarried (your ex’s remarriage doesn’t matter);

3) You and your ex are both eligible for Social Security — i.e., at least 62 years old or disabled; and

4) Your benefit based on your former spouse's work record is bigger than your widow's benefit. At age 63, your benefit based on his record was 37.5 percent of his full retirement age benefit. At age 64, it would be 42 percent of that benefit.

You can switch to your own bigger benefit at 70 — because a surviving spouse can do that even if she took her widow’s benefit before full retirement age. You wouldn’t have that option if you had taken an early benefit based on your ex's record.

The bottom line

A widow’s Social Security benefit is reduced if she takes it before her full retirement age.

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