Younger widow asks about collecting survivor benefits
Question: My husband died several years ago in 2019. It is my understanding that I should be receiving some portion of his Social Security payments. However, when I called to notify Social Security that he passed, they told me not to touch his last check because it would be taken back. I was 8 years younger than my husband, so I am still only 58. I also have always made more income than he did. How do I find out if there is some sort of residual that I should still be receiving? Signed: Widowed Wife
Dear Widowed Wife: The reason you were told “not to touch” your husband’s last check is because benefits are not payable for the month a person dies. Social Security pays benefits in the month following the month they are earned, so someone who dies before month ends isn’t entitled to benefits for that month. Social Security will, indeed, take that payment back. As a survivor, you aren’t entitled to those benefits because they were awarded to your deceased husband and will be taken back because he didn’t live the full month.
As for any benefits you are entitled to as your husband’s survivor, you cannot collect a monthly survivor benefit until you are at least 60 years old (unless you are disabled, in which case you can collect as early as age 50). Sixty is the earliest age to collect survivor benefits, but claimed at age 60 the survivor benefit will be reduced by 28.5 percent from what it would be at your full retirement age of 67. Survivor benefits reach maximum at your FRA, but taken any earlier will be reduced by .396 percent per month early, to a maximum reduction of 28.5 percent. You are, however, entitled to a one-time lump sum death benefit of $255, for which you can contact Social Security at 1 (800) 772.1213 (or at your local SS office).
You should also be aware that taking any monthly SS benefit before reaching your full retirement age of 67 will subject you to Social Security’s “earnings test,” which limits how much you can earn before they take back some (or all) of your benefits. The earnings limit changes annually but for 2022 the limit is $19,560 and, if that is exceeded, SS will take back benefits equal to $1 for every $2 over the limit (they “take back” by withholding future benefit payments or requiring you to repay in a lump sum). If you’re working full time and earning substantially more than the annual earnings limit, it’s usually not prudent (and may not even be possible) to claim your monthly survivor benefit before your full retirement age.
From what you’ve shared, it doesn’t appear that you are currently entitled to any Social Security survivor benefit, other than the one-time death benefit of $255. You may consider claiming a survivor benefit when you are 60, but your work status and earnings level may restrict or eliminate your ability to collect a monthly survivor benefit at that time. Once you reach your FRA, however, the earnings test no longer applies, and you can apply for any benefit available to you. When the earnings test goes away at your FRA, you can also choose to take your smaller survivor benefit first and let your personal SS retirement benefit grow, to maximum at age 70 if you wish.