Q: My ex-wife passed away recently. I'm 61 and still working. Would I qualify for any Social Security benefits based on her account?
A: If your late ex-spouse was entitled to a Social Security retirement benefit based on her own work record, then you could receive benefits as a divorced widower, provided that your marriage lasted 10 years or more. The earliest you can start receiving a Social Security survivors benefit is age 60, but the amount you receive will be reduced because you have not reached your full retirement age. At age 61 you would receive from 76.3% - 80.6% of your deceased ex-wife’s benefit, depending on when you file your claim. The more months you wait, the more you would receive. You would be entitled to 100% of your ex-spouse's benefit when you reach full retirement age at 66.
Keep in mind that you might at some point receive a higher retirement benefit based on your own work record. You can start a reduced divorced spouse survivors benefit now, and delay taking your own retirement benefit, which would allow your own retirement benefit to grow due to delayed retirement credits. You can then switch when your own benefit is higher, or by age 70 when it reaches its maximum.
While that may be helpful, earnings restriction rules affect what you can receive in benefits until you turn full retirement age. If you start a reduced survivors benefit in 2014, you may exempt $15,480 or ($1,290 per month) in earnings. If your earnings are more than that, $1 in benefits would be withheld for every $2 in earnings above the limit. Depending on what you earn, that could take most, if not all, of your reduced survivors benefit.
For example, let's assume that you would be entitled to $800 per month in survivors benefits starting April 1st, and that you’ll earn about $3,200 per month in 2014. Your earnings would be $1,910 per month more than the limit. Social Security would withhold as much as $955 in benefits, completely wiping out your monthly survivors benefit payments. If your earnings are low— say $2,000 per month — that would only be $710 more than the limit. Social Security would withhold $355 in benefits but you would receive about $445. Your Social Security benefits could also be taxable if your income is higher than $25,000, further reducing your net income.
To learn more, visit www.SocialSecurity.gov or call 1-800-772-1213.