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Understanding Social Security survivor benefits

My wife died at age 58 after contributing into the Social Security system for 34 years. I’m 58 years old, still working, and don’t plan to collect Social Security until I’m 70. Am I eligible to receive benefits for my wife’s contributions into Social Security? Also, could you give a general explanation of what happens to a deceased individual’s contribution into Social Security? Who’s eligible to collect on that person’s behalf and what are the calculations?

First, let’s dispel a common misconception. Payments to Social Security are taxes, not contributions to a personal account; and the Social Security benefits a taxpayer and his family receive may be less — or more — than the Social Security taxes he or she paid.

A deceased person’s spouse, minor children, dependent parents and even ex-spouse are all potentially eligible for survivor benefits. Except for the children, however, each potential beneficiary must meet additional filing requirements.

Your maximum benefit as a widower is 100 percent of what your spouse would have received at her full retirement age. But to collect that maximum benefit, you must delay applying for it until your full retirement age. In your case, that’s 66 1⁄2.

Alternatively, you could take a reduced widower’s benefit as early as age 60. But if you keep working, you might forfeit some or all of that reduced benefit until you reach full retirement age, depending on how much you earn.

A person eligible for two benefits receives only the larger amount. But as a surviving spouse, you have an option unavailable to other Social Security recipients: You can collect them sequentially, taking your full widower’s benefit at age 66 1⁄2, for example, and switching to your own benefit at 70.

THE BOTTOM LINE Spouses qualify for Social Security survivor benefits.



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