Ask Social Security — Can a widower get full survivor benefits early?

Question: My wife passed from COVID-related heart disease in 2020, just short of her 65th birthday. I will be 66 in May 2023. Do I have any recourse for a part of her benefit? Online at it says I can retire four months early due to her passing. Is that true? I’m confused on these issues. Signed: Confused Widower

Dear Confused: Our condolences on the untimely loss of your wife. To answer your question, you are already eligible to collect a survivor benefit from your wife, but you may wish to consider a few points before deciding when to do that:

• If you claim your survivor benefit now, before your full retirement age of 66 years and 6 months, the amount you get will be reduced. The reduction would be 4.75 percent for each full year early (.396 percent per month early). If taken at your FRA, your survivor benefit would be 100 percent of the amount your wife was receiving (or was eligible to receive) at her death, but if you claim it before your FRA, it will be reduced.

  • You will become eligible for your full survivor benefit four months earlier than your normal FRA; in other words, you can get 100 percent of the benefit your wife had earned up to her death when you are 66 years and two months old. But, if you are still working at that time, you will be subject to Social Security’s “earnings test” which may affect your eligibility to collect benefits earlier than your full retirement age. The earnings test applies until you reach your FRA, so if you claim your survivor benefit before your FRA and exceed the earnings limit, you will lose some of your survivor benefits. The earnings limit for future years isn’t yet known, but the 2022 limit is $19,560 per year, or $1,630 per month for the remainder of the year if you claim mid-year. If you’re working full time at a decent salary, you would probably be disqualified from receiving early survivor benefits (because your benefit amount wouldn’t be sufficient to offset the penalty for exceeding the earnings limit).
  • It’s possible for you to claim your survivor benefit completely independent of your own SS retirement benefit. So, for example, you can collect only your survivor benefit first and allow your personal SS retirement benefit to continue to grow, up to age 70 when it reaches maximum. That might be prudent if you expect at least average longevity because it would allow you to maximize your personal benefit while still collecting your survivor benefit (average longevity for a man your current age is about 84). For clarity, you don’t get your survivor benefit in addition to your personal benefit – you get one or the other (whichever is more).

Considering your circumstances, if you are now working full time and will continue to do so, it may be prudent to wait until your full retirement age (66 years and 6 months) to collect your full survivor benefit (thus avoid the earnings limit). At your FRA, you can take your unreduced survivor benefit (only) and allow your own SS retirement benefit to continue to grow, up to age 70 if you like. At age 70, your personal SS benefit would be 28 percent more than it would be at your FRA and would replace your smaller survivor benefit from your wife. If you’re not currently working full time or if you stop working, the earnings limit won’t apply and you can claim your full survivor benefit (only) at age 66 and 2 months, and still defer claiming your own benefit until a later age for a higher amount (but don’t wait longer than age 70).