Collecting Social Security while you’re working can be a headache. And figuring out whether you’re better off with your own retirement benefit or your spouse’s is another tricky decision.

In this week’s reader question on Social Security, a widow who’s facing both complications reaches out to columnist Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and the co-author of the updated edition of The New York Times bestseller How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.

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Cheri S.: My husband passed on May 1st of this year, one week shy of his 79th birthday. He started collecting his benefits at age 62 or 63 and was retired. I am 64 and work full time. I will be 65 in July 2019. I have been told that I cannot collect any of my late husband’s Social Security while I have a job and earn more than $17,000 dollars for the first year I would start collecting benefits.

At age 66 I’m told I would be able to collect something and be able to earn more than $46,000, which is about what I would make if I was still working and collecting his Social Security. Is the first year of collecting a calendar year or the remaining year, say 2018? Please let me know your thoughts and which direction I should go.

Phil Moeller: Social Security’s earnings test does limit your Social Security benefits if your outside earnings are more than $17,640 in calendar year 2019. After you’ve earned that much, Social Security will reduce your benefit by $1 for every $2 earned above the threshold. So, you might get something. It depends on the size of your widow’s benefit and how much you earn. 

In the calendar year in which you are scheduled to reach your full retirement age—when you turn 66 in 2020—the threshold jumps to $46.920 (that’s the 2019 figure—it should be slightly higher in 2020). Your benefit would then be reduced by $1 for every $3 earned above this limit. Based on your earnings, you likely would collect all of your benefits.

While you’re figuring out what you want to do with your widow’s benefit, I suggest you also find out about your own retirement benefits. They may well be larger than your widow’s benefit, and this is very important.

You can find out the projected size of your retirement benefit by opening an online My Social Security account. 

Your own retirement benefits may well be larger than your widow’s benefit.

Here’s where things can get a little tricky, so please bear with me. Your widow’s benefit will increase in value each year you delay claiming it until you turn 66, when it reaches its full value. Your retirement benefit, on the other hand, doesn’t reach its full value until you turn 70. 

If your retirement benefit at age 70 will be larger than your widow’s benefit at age 66, you would claim the widow’s benefit as soon as you would receive any benefit dollars at all. 

On the other hand, if your widow’s benefit at age 66 will be larger than your retirement benefit at age 70, you should defer filing for the widow’s benefit until you turn 66. Instead, when you turn 62, you should file right away for your retirement benefit and get what you can even though the earnings test will reduce your benefit.

I’m sorry this is so complicated. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have needed to write an entire book about it! Best of luck.

How much do I gain by waiting to claim?

Wendy, Huntingburg, Ind.: I’m retiring in May of 2019 to get Medicare but not to get my Social Security. Will it benefit me to just leave it for another 1 1/2 years and collect when I’m 66?

Phil Moeller: You bet! Between the earliest normal claiming age of 62 and the age of 70, when Social Security benefits reach their maximum, they will rise by 7% to 8% a year for each year you defer claiming.

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