What Social Security isn’t telling widows – the Social Security Surviving Spouse Benefits overlooked
Going to Social Security was quite an experience. It is one thing, as a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) practitioner, to advise clients on Social Security surviving spouse benefits. It is another thing to experience the Social Security process first hand.
Professionally, helping clients maximize Social Security benefits was simply part of what I did every day. It’s included in the holistic planning we provide. With the help of my team, we analyze claiming strategies, review every possible scenario and “what if” situation to help clients make the best decisions.
However, when I stepped foot in the Social Security office with my thoroughly outlined benefit analysis and appointment ticket in hand, things did not go according to my plan. (Yes, you can make an appointment for Social Security and I would highly recommend it. You will still wait, but not for nearly as long.)
Things not only did not go my way, but my mother and I were kicked out of the office and told that the Social Security surviving spouse benefits requested do not exist.
Helping mom after dad died
Let me back up and give you the full story. My dad died on September 26, 2018 at the age of 64. As any daughter would, I jumped in to help my mom, Joyce, work through her new reality as a widow. One of those tasks was to organize finances, the estate, insurance, Social Security surviving spouse benefits, etc. A natural fit with my chosen profession. (There will be more articles coming on these topics, so please subscribe to our Blog if interested.)
Joyce is 64. She is currently working as a secretary and plans to continue working until she becomes eligible for Medicare. (We all know how expensive health care benefits are!) As a widow(er), you have options when it comes to Social Security survivor benefits. Let me outline those options and share with you the strategy that the local Social Security office wasn’t aware of. (And, I do mean the whole office. Our Social Security appointment was quite a to-do as our representative called her fellow “technical officers” and even her boss to confirm that my mother’s Social Security surviving spouse benefits strategy was not an option.)
Traditional Social Security survivor spouse benefits / widow(er) benefit
Many of you are familiar with the traditional Social Security survivor spouse benefits / widow(er) benefit. This allows you as the widow(er) to collect benefits on your deceased spouse’s record if you are:
- At least 60 years old (This is two years less than the minimum age of 62 in order to collect Social Security retirement benefits). There are exceptions to the 60-age limit including if you are disabled or caring for a child under the age of 16.
- Single / not married (unless you are over the age of 60)
This was presented as the ONLY option to my mother. Since my dad made more money while working, his Social Security benefit was higher than my mother’s. Therefore, this strategy made the most financial sense when compared to mom taking her own benefit.
As I sat at the desk with my mother facing a very annoyed Social Security “technical” officer, I calmly told him, “No, we want to go with a different strategy. My mother is going to collect now on her own earnings record and then switch to the Survivor Benefit at full retirement age.”
“It’s not possible”
I was told by the Social Security officer: “That is not possible.”
She encouraged my mother to take her survivor benefit now as she will at least have more money each month. The officer told us how long she has been employed at the Social Security Administration. Furthermore, she continued to tell me that she was a “technical officer” (which implied that she knew everything).
The officer called her supervisor and coworkers who confirmed that she was in fact correct, and that my mother could NOT take her benefit now and then collect survivor benefits at full retirement age. The Social Security officer was so excited and animated to receive confirmation that she was correct, that she actually put her hands above her head and then pounded her fists on the desk to celebrate her victory. A little “I told you so” was added in at the end, followed by the chair lean-back, crossed arms and pursed lips stance.
I wish I was exaggerating. All that I could think about sitting there with my sad overwhelmed mother was: “This is absolutely terrifying. Social Security is not telling widows(ers) all of their options. So much money in benefits is possibly being left on the Social Security table!”
I tried to tell this Social Security “technical” officer that she was wrong. And, I must say, I did a great job maintaining my cool and professional composure. While being respectful, but firm, I asked her to call another manager. I shared articles showing how this claiming strategy is often overlooked and referenced information found on the Social Security website. Nothing worked. As our appointment was now at the 30-minute mark, our Social Security officer stood up behind her desk and my mother was given the ultimatum to take her survivor benefit or leave as our Social Security officer had more people “to help.”
My mother turned to me, and I stood up. I placed my business card on the officer’s desk and told her to call me when she realized that she is incorrect (I was now completely frustrated and stunned). We had just been asked to leave the Social Security Office.
Now, the point of me sharing our story is not to complain about our disappointing appointment at the Social Security Administration. The point is to share with you the widow(er) claiming strategy that was missed and what other option is available if you are in the same situation as my mom.
Dual survivor entitlement: “Dualies”
You can be a “dualie” – eligible for both Social Security surviving spouse benefits and your own retirement benefits. If so, your payment will equal the higher of the two amounts – unless you request otherwise to strategically time your payments.
What this means is that as a widow(er), you have another option than simply taking survivor benefits. You can choose to take a lower benefit first and then the higher benefit later. For example, you can claim:
- widow’s benefit at age 60 and your own retirement benefit at full retirement age or later
- your own benefit as early as 62 and then a survivor benefit at full retirement age
Before selecting a strategy, keep in mind that if you are collecting Social Security before your full retirement age, your Social Security benefit will be reduced in accordance with Social Security income limits.
For my mother, this meant taking her own benefit now (even though it may be reduced as she is still working) and then turning on her survivor benefit at full retirement age.
Word of warning, you MUST go back to Social Security and turn on the second benefit when the time comes. This will not automatically happen. For my mother, this means turning on her survivor benefit at full retirement age.
Furthermore, I am not recommending that this dual strategy is right for every widow(er). I am, however, recommending that you do the math and run your numbers – comparing various scenarios and options. For my mother, this strategy made financial sense and maximized what she would receive from Social Security.
Know your Social Security surviving spouse benefit options
I implore you to do your homework before you step foot in the Social Security Administration office. Know your options and advocate for yourself and your loved ones. Remember, a Social Security technician may not always be right (like in our case). Before you go, reference http://www.ssa.gov/ which is a great resource. Contact me if you would like an analysis of your Social Security options and what it means for you and your bank account.
My mom’s story ended with a call from the Social Security technical officer the next day admitting that she was incorrect. She graciously thanked my mother and me for teaching her something new so she can better help the widows(ers) who pass through her door.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our blog. And a big hug for all those widows(ers), sons and daughters reading this. Wishing you happier days ahead… Hugs, Lauren Rebbel
 Reference: Social Security The Inside Story by Andy Landis
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