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Ask the Expert: Navigating widow's Social Security benefits

I was widowed in 2001 after 2½ years of marriage, when my husband was 36 years old. Am I entitled to any of his Social Security benefits? I’m now 57, and I’ve never remarried. It's my understanding that I can claim his full retirement benefit at age 66, even if I continue working, and get my own at age 67. Is this correct?

Yes, except for some minor details.

You were born in 1961. Assuming you don’t remarry before turning 60, at age 66 and 10 months you’ll be eligible to collect a full widow’s benefit, regardless of your earned income. (A full widow’s benefit is 100 percent of the monthly amount your husband would have received at his full retirement age.) And at age 67, you’ll qualify to receive the full Social Security benefit based on your own work record. (That’s right: You reach full retirement age for your widow’s benefit two months before reaching it for your own benefit. Go figure.)

Unlike other Social Security beneficiaries, widows and widowers can choose which benefit to collect first, their own or their spouse’s; and they can later switch from one benefit to the other. (They cannot collect both at the same time.)

A surviving spouse can receive a reduced widow or widower’s benefit as early as age 60, and switch to his or her own benefit any time after age 62. The best choice depends on your situation. In general, it makes more financial sense to postpone the bigger benefit, especially if it’s the one based on your own work record. The reason: Unlike a survivor benefit, your benefit based on your own work keeps growing for up to four years when you postpone collecting it beyond your full retirement age.


Special Social Security rules apply to widows and widowers.


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