When will I be eligible to collect my late husband's social security benefits?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My husband was 52 years old when he died, I was 48. When am I eligible to collect his benefits, on the anniversary of HIS 60th birthday, or when I turn 60?

Expert Answer

You can collect Social Security survivors benefits as early as when you turn age 60. However, the amount you receive varies greatly depending on whether you begin collecting benefits at the earliest possible moment -- age 60 -- or you wait until later to begin collecting it. The amount you receive in survivors benefits can be the same as the amount your husband would have received in retirement benefits when he reached full retirement age, based on his earnings during the years that he worked. All this depends, however, on your husband having worked enough during his lifetime to have qualified for retirement benefits. Since he died at age 52, he would have needed only 30 work credits (about eight years of work, with his employer paying Social Security taxes). To find out more about these eligibility rules, visit the Social Security Administration survivors benefits Web pages.

How much of your husband's retirement amount you receive as a survivor depends on when you begin collecting it in relation to what's called your "full benefits age". If you were born between 1945 and the end of 1956, your full benefits age is 66. If you were born between 1957 and the end of 1961, your full retirement age is between 66 and 67, with two months added for each year after 1956. If you claim survivors benefits at age 60, you will receive only 71.5 percent of your husband's full retirement benefits. And this reduction is permanent. For each year after age 60 that you delay beginning to collect benefits, your benefit amount will increase by four to six percent per year until you reach your full benefits age. The permanent reduction in benefits by claimming them before full benefits age can mean a loss of many tens of thousands of benefit dollars over a lifetime, especially if you live a long time. On the other hand, many people claim their benefits as early as possible, despite the permanent reduction in the monthly amount, because of their immediate financial needs.

There's another thing to consider before claiming your benefits at less than your full benefits age. If you continue working before reaching your full benefits age, your early claim might involve a penalty which will further reduce your benefits. Until you reach your full benefits age, Social Security reduces your benefits by $1 for every $2 you earn over a set yearly limit. In 2010, the limit is $14,160. This applies only to income you earn from current work, not from pensions, investments, or the like. So, if you're going to continue to work and to earn any substantial amount over this limit, it's probably not a good idea to claim your survivors benefits before you reach your full benefits age. Once you do reach full benefits age, you can work and earn any amount without it affecting your benefits.