Can I get survivor benefits while still working?

Question: I lost my wife several years ago and I qualified for Social Security Spousal benefits. Unfortunately, because of my income, I have not been able to take advantage of this benefit. I am currently 64 and still working. I believe I have until the age of 70 to receive this. Is there any way to claim any of this before I start taking my Social Security in a couple of years? Signed: Working Widower

Dear Working Widower: Your entitlement to surviving spouse benefits from your wife actually never expires so, you can wait until you stop working full time, or until you reach your full retirement age to claim your benefit as a widower.

Social Security’s “earnings test” lasts until you reach your full retirement age which, for you, is 66 years and 8 months. That is the age at which your earnings from working will no longer affect your Social Security benefit. So, you can simply defer claiming your survivor benefit until you reach your FRA, or until you stop working full time and won’t exceed the annual earnings limit (the earnings limit changes yearly; for 2023 it is $21,240). But there is no way to avoid the earnings test if you’re collecting SS benefits of any kind before you reach your full retirement age. If you collect your surviving spouse benefit early and exceed the earnings limit, SS will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 you are over the limit (half of what you exceed the limit by), and if your work earnings are high enough it can temporarily disqualify you from receiving SS benefits. The penalty for exceeding the earnings limit is also less severe in the year you reach your FRA.

You might take some comfort in knowing, anyway, that taking your survivor benefit before your FRA would mean it would be reduced (by 4.75 percent for each full year early) but waiting until you reach your FRA to claim it would mean you’ll get 100 percent of the survivor benefit you’re entitled to (the same amount your wife was entitled to when she died). And you can claim your survivor benefit (only) first and collect that, while allowing your personal SS retirement amount to continue to grow, up to age 70 if you wish. You should strive to maximize whichever benefit will be highest – your own, or your survivor benefit – and collect that benefit for the rest of your life. If you choose to claim your survivor benefit at your FRA and switch to your own higher amount at 70, your personal SS retirement benefit at 70 will be almost 27 percent more than it will be at your full retirement age. That would be a good way to avoid the earnings test, maximize both benefits, and secure the highest possible Social Security benefit for as long as you live.

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Whether waiting until 70 to claim your own SS retirement benefit makes sense depends on whether it will be higher at age 70 than your survivor benefit at your FRA, and on your life expectancy. Average life expectancy for a man your current age is about 84 and you would break even moneywise at about age 81 if you wait until age 70 to claim your own SS retirement benefit. So, you’d get the most in cumulative lifetime benefits by waiting until your FRA to claim your survivor benefit and – if it will be higher – waiting until you’re 70 to claim your own SS retirement benefit. The choice is yours to make but longevity is the key, so you should carefully assess your potential life expectancy, including your family history, your current health, and your lifestyle to help you decide.