Q: How long do you have to be married to claim a Social Security benefit on a husband's account? May I claim a widow's benefit if I work? I married my husband about a year ago at age 61, but he recently died. Both of us were still working until several months ago when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I'm now 62 and haven’t started my own benefits yet. There's a pile of medical bills since my husband did not have Medicare yet.
A: Losing a spouse to a swift — moving disease is both emotionally and financially devastating. Not only are you coping with grief and the changes associated with the loss of a spouse, but you are quite likely dealing with an overload of medical bills totaling thousands of dollars. In order to claim a widow's benefit you generally need to have been married for about a year. But that's only part of the equation.
The decision on when to claim benefits is an important one that you should take some time to fully understand. The date at which you first start Social Security benefits can affect your lifetime income by tens of thousands of dollars. In general the amount you receive at your full retirement age (which is 66) would be 100% of your deceased spouse's benefit amount. If you start benefits sooner, then your benefit would be reduced depending upon the age when you start.
Working while receiving any Social Security benefit triggers the Social Security earnings restriction rules. If you earn more than $1,310 a month, or $15,720 in 2015, then Social Security would withhold $1 in benefits for every $2 in excess of the limit. And depending on your income, a portion of your benefits may be taxable.
Before making any decision about starting benefits, you should take stock of your income and resources, and talk to a financial planner. For example was there any life insurance that could help you pay off your medical bills? Did your husband have any retirement accounts, pensions or annuities? Did you and your husband own a home long enough to have built up some equity?
If you have limited income and resources, you can find help through many area Agencies on Aging or local senior services department. The National Council On Aging has a useful online tool found at www.EconomicCheckup.org that can help you take a self-assessment to get you started.