Will Early Social Safety Pensions Scale back My Spouse’s Widow Advantages?

Ask Larry

Economic Security Planning, Inc.

Today’s column discusses how receiving early retirement benefits would affect future survivor benefits, when spouse benefits may be available, and how divorced spouse benefits are calculated. Larry Kotlikoff is a professor of economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc., which markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner.

You can find more Ask Larry answers here.

Do you have any questions of your own about social security that you would like to have answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.

Will Early Social Security Pensions Reduce My Wife’s Widow Benefits?

Hello Larry, my wife is four years and a month older than me. She turned 65 last November and retired this January. I plan to work until my full retirement age of 66 years and 10 months so that I can receive my full benefits.

Our respective bloodlines indicate that I will die before her. Thereafter, she should be entitled to widow benefits in addition to her own retirement benefits. If my wife takes out her old-age pension early, will my wife lose some or a percentage of her widow’s benefits? Or will it be the same as my full benefits? Thank you, Elliot

Hello Elliot, your widowed wife’s total benefit rate would not be reduced if she were to receive her own benefits before full retirement age (FRA). When you start using your FRA benefits, and since your wife is above her FRA at that point, if you die before your wife, your widow’s widow rate will be calculated by subtracting her pension rate from your pension rate.

In other words, she would continue to receive her own retirement benefit plus a widow’s benefit equal to the difference between your retirement benefit rate and her reduced retirement benefit rate. That would give her a total benefit amount equal to your full rate.

What could reduce your wife’s survivor benefit would be if you started using your benefits early. Conversely, if you want to make sure that your surviving spouse receives the highest benefit rate possible, you should wait until 70 to start claiming your benefits. In the event of your death, your wife could then receive a total amount equal to your full age of 70.

You may want to use my company’s software – Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner – to fully understand the options available and determine your best strategy to maximize your benefits. Social security calculators provided by other companies or nonprofits can provide suitable suggestions if they have been prepared with the utmost care. Best of all, Larry

Can my husband increase his utility because of my greater utility?

Hello Larry, my husband has a coronary artery disease and had two stents in 2009. In 2012 he had a double bypass so that he could not continue his work. I felt like he should be applying for a disability pension, but he decided to apply for his old age pension when he was 62 years old. He has received the reduced payment since 2012.

I retired at 70 and am receiving full benefits. We are 73 and 74 years old, respectively. Can he achieve more by submitting my file? My retirement pension is more than $ 1,000 more than his. Thank you, Lara

Hello Lara, as long as you and your husband both live, he can only qualify for benefits from your file if his primary insurance amount (PIA) is less than half your PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their social security rate when they receive their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

There is not enough information in your question for me to know how your PIA compares to your husband’s PIA. Therefore, I cannot tell you whether or not he is entitled to spousal benefits.

Your husband could apply for a spouse’s benefit to get a formal assessment of his eligibility for these benefits, or he could simply check with Social Security to see if he is qualified or not.

By the way, if you die before your husband, he is entitled to the higher amount of either his own benefit rate or your benefit rate. Even if your husband is not entitled to spousal benefits, he is entitled to survivor benefits if you should die first. Best of all, Larry

Is my husband’s ex-wife eligible for a benefit equal to 50% of my husband’s benefit rate?

Hello Larry, my husband and his ex-wife were married for 25 years. After their divorce, she remarried at the age of 51. Their second marriage lasted 30 years before her husband died.

She receives the benefit of a widow from her second husband’s SSA record. Half of my husband’s retirement pension is higher than that of the widow who is receiving it, but SSA says she is not entitled to it. I am not sure if they are always correct. Is it not eligible?

Since this is her only income, we want her to get as much as possible. Thank you, Martha

Hello Martha, Unreduced spouse divorce benefits payable on a living employee’s file are calculated based on 50% of the employee’s Primary Insurance (PIA), not 50% of the employee’s actual benefit rate. A person’s PIA is equal to their social security rate when they receive their benefits at full retirement age (FRA).

Since your husband’s ex-wife appears to be above full retirement age (FRA), it appears that she is entitled to a benefit equal to a) 50% of your husband’s PIA or b) her widow’s benefit rate.

If 50% of your husband’s PIA is higher than their widow’s rate, your husband’s ex-wife should apply for divorced spouse benefits regardless of what a Social Security worker advises her. If her claim is denied, she would have rights of appeal. Best of all, Larry

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