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, answers a reader’s question about survivor benefits and how they can work with an individual’s own Social Security benefit.

Got a question of your own about Medicare or Social Security? Send it to askphil@considerable.com.

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Can I claim a survivor’s benefit even after I have claimed my own benefit?

Question: Could you please help me? I will be 65 next January, have been a widow for 20 years, and never remarried. I want to stop working then and claim my Social Security benefits, which I project will be about $1,000 a month.

Then, when I reach my full retirement age of 66 years and two months, I want to stop my own benefits and claim my much larger survivor benefit of about $2,200 a month.

Is this possible? I have called Social Security and can never get the same answer twice!

Susan

Answer: Dear Susan, yes, you can do this. Social Security rules permit a person to claim their own benefit without simultaneously triggering a claim for a survivor benefit.

When you do file for your survivor benefit you will not be technically switching to that benefit but will be receiving what Social Security calls an excess survivor benefit.

It should be equal to the amount by which your survivor benefit exceeds the retirement benefit you’ve already been receiving.

I do not know how much you earn at your job. But I would suggest you look at Social Security’s earnings test rules and see if it makes sense for you to file for your own benefit before you stop working. You’re already eligible for a survivor benefit right now.

Susan: Thank you so much!! I so appreciate all your time, support, and expertise. Since I first got in touch, my situation has changed. I now plan to work until my FRA and then claim my maximum survivor benefit.

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However, Social Security is now telling me I will only get 75% of my late husband’s benefit because in 1998 he took Social Security for about 5 months. Is this true? I am financially and emotionally devastated. Do you have any advice for me?

God bless.

Sue

Phil: I wish I had a surefire solution for you, but I don’t. If it were me, I’d ask Social Security for a formal document explaining your late husband having taken only 5 months of benefits in 1998. If that’s all he took, this seems like a very steep cut in your survivor benefit.

Was this the five months right before he died, or did he stop benefits for some reason? If he stopped his benefits, I’d want to know why. Once a person reaches their FRA, they can suspend benefits and earn delayed retirement credits until they resume them. If his benefits ended due to his death, there is no way your benefit would be reduced by more than a few percent.

There are logical reasons for Social Security’s many, many rules, but not knowing them can place people at a huge disadvantage in properly planning for their later years.

I think Congress should authorize much higher operational funding for the agency to communicate these rules to the public.

My complaints carry little if any weight, but administrators of the agency recently complained about operational funding cuts, and many in Congress agree.

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