In 2017, there were about 11.64 million widows and about 3.28 widowers in the United States. For everyone, social security is part of your retirement paycheck, and you want to make sure you are maximizing the amount you receive.

Women have traditionally spent less time in the work force, have longer life expectancies, and – as clearly noted in the above statistics – are more likely to be widowed.

Ladies, the implications are more profound as the financial landscape can change dramatically. Take Paul and Hilde. They were both collecting on their own records $2,100 each when Paul passed away. They had been receiving $4,200 from SS.

Now, Hilde can only collect either her own or Paul’s – whichever is higher. She just lost 50% of her SS income. Have you considered how this would impact your planning for lifestyle, liquidity, longevity and legacy?

The Four Buckets of Social Security Benefits

Each of the four different buckets of Social Security is unique in how to access them:

  • Retirement Benefits – your own and spousal
  • Survivor Benefits
  • Disability Benefits
  • Supplemental Security Income Benefits

A recent internal audit of the Social Security Administration found that the agency failed to inform widows and widowers of a claiming strategy that would have given them a higher monthly benefit amount.

While the SSA agreed that it needed to improve the process of informing people of their options, time will tell how it plays out.

If Social Security Won’t Tell You – I Will!

As a surviving spouse, or eligible surviving ex-spouse, you can make separate claiming decisions for your retirement and survivor benefits. Your retirement benefit currently increases by 8% per year, when you delay past full retirement up to your age 70. Your survivor benefits do not have the increase option.

Your full retirement age is based on your year of birth. For people born before 1954, it is 66. Born after 1954? Add two months to every year after 1954 up until 1960 and later, and you get 67. If you collect before your FRA, you have a decreased benefit for as long as you live.

Based on a variety of factors, including your age, life expectancy, total assets and liquidity, desired standard of living, inflation and income needs, you can strategize what you take from Social Security and when.

For example, the widow (married at least nine months and not remarried), could limit the scope of application to a survivor benefit (which could be taken as early as 60), and push your retirement benefit off until age 70 – thus increasing the amount of money received over time.

You could also start collecting on your own earnings record, then switch later to survivor benefits. Bottom line, you need to be able to compare the combination of benefits that are going to best fit your personal situation.

Death and Divorce – Additional Considerations

If your marriage lasted at least ten years, you have been single for two years, not remarried and over the age of 62, you are eligible to receive benefits based on your living ex-spouse’s record.

If your ex-husband is deceased – and you did not commit the crime – and you have hit the magic age of 60, you want to compare if his benefits would be higher than your own before you turn on the spigot.

Social Security does have a lot of information on their website, but they do not compare your options in order to maximize your paycheck. It is important that you find a resource or an advisor that has the ability to look at all the moving parts and help you make the most out of your distribution buckets.

Out of the over five hundred different ways to claim what is yours, make sure no one is keeping any secrets from you. Where do you want to start? Download my Monetary Manifesto for additional encouragement.

If you are collecting Social Security, do you have any questions about your benefits? Do you know who to ask about your options? Please join the conversation below, and let’s hear what you know.

Danielle HowardDanielle Howard is an author, speaker and personal finance thought leader. A Certified Financial Planner® with 24 years of client engagement experience, she is a catalyst for change around the tools, techniques and temperaments that construct a woman’s retirement journey. She enjoys helping women to amplify their financial voice.

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