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Ask the Expert: What are a widow's Social Security options?

A good friend of mine died a few years ago at age 56. His widow is now 61. They both worked full time. What's the best way to maximize her widow's benefits? Can she claim a reduced benefit on her own record at 62, and then switch to 100% of her widow's benefit at her normal retirement age? Or will she always get a reduced benefit if she starts at 62?

Most people who start Social Security early are permanently locked into discounted benefits. But different rules apply to widows and widowers. A surviving spouse can take her own reduced benefit at 62, and switch to a full widow's benefit at her full retirement age. Or she can take a reduced widow's benefit as early as age 60, and switch to her own full benefit at her full retirement age.

Her best choice depends on the dollar amounts involved.

The maximum surviving spouse benefit is 100 percent of the amount the deceased spouse was entitled to receive at his/her full retirement age. If that spouse died after reaching full retirement age, but hadn't yet applied for Social Security, the survivor's benefit also includes any delayed retirement credits the decedent may have earned by postponing that application.  

In the situation you describe, the widow's benefit won't include delayed retirement credits, since her late husband died at age 56. But she still has the opportunity to earn those credits on her own benefit. One option is to take a reduced widow's benefit at age 62 and postpone switching to her own benefit until she's 70 in order to earn extra credits on it.

She should make an appointment at a local Social Security office to get dollar estimates of all her options.

The bottom line

A surviving spouse has unique Social Security choices.

More information

ssa.gov/planners/survivors/onyourown.html

ssa.gov/planners/survivors/survivorchartred.html

TO ASK THE EXPERT Send questions to Ask the Expert/Act 2, Newsday, 6 Corporate Center Dr., Melville, NY 11747, or email act2@newsday.com. Include your name, address and phone numbers. Questions can be answered only in this column. Advice is offered as general guidance. Check with your own consultants for your specific needs.

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