In this week’s column, Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and co-author of the updated edition of How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, offers advice on choosing between your Social Security benefits and those of your late spouse.

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Jeanne: My husband died suddenly, and when I went to the Social Security office they told me and my son that I would have to choose to take my Social Security or his.

His is always going to be larger than mine, but I was told if I took his I could not have my own Social Social at any time — that I could only draw on one, just one.

I went to a Social Security office in another city later, and asked about this and was told the same thing.

In researching this on the Internet, I saw that you had answered another lady in a similar situation, and you said to take his now and her own later.

Could I still do that? Add my own at 70? I am 68 now. 

It felt awful to just lose what had been deducted from my paychecks for years. Just because my husband passed. I hope you have better news. Of course, I need that additional income now more than ever.

Phil Moeller: Based on what you’ve told me, you probably were given accurate information. I hope it will be helpful if I explain how the rules work.

First off, it is true that a person can’t collect the full value of two benefits but only the greater of the two. So, if you were collecting a survivor benefit based on your late husband’s earnings, you cannot also collect the full amount of your own retirement benefit.

However, this is not the same as saying you can never collect your own retirement benefit. 

The information I am presenting now applies to all survivors. They can file for a survivor benefit (usually beginning as young as age 60) and later switch over to their retirement benefit (usually beginning at age 62), or vice versa.

As I said earlier, they can’t get both — just the larger of the two. Survivor benefits reaches their maximum amount when a person reaches their full retirement age (FRA) to file. Retirement benefits reaches their maximum amount at age 70. 

If their retirement benefit at age 70 will be larger than their survivor benefit, the best strategy is to file for their survivor benefit right away and then file for the retirement benefit at age 70

Retirement benefits reaches their maximum amount at age 70.

However, if the opposite was true, and their survivor benefit at FRA would be larger than their retirement benefit at age 70, then they should file for retirement right away, and switch to their survivor when they reached their FRA.

This advice no longer makes sense to you because you are already past your FRA, so your survivor benefit has already reached its maximum amount.

Assuming you are correct that this payment will always be higher than your own retirement benefit, there is no reason to even file for a retirement benefit.

So, the advice you were given was correct.

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