A:

If you are the surviving widow or widower of a deceased worker who would have been eligible to receive Social Security benefits upon retirement, you may be able to collect benefits in his or her stead. As a surviving spouse, you can begin collecting survivor's benefits as early as age 60, or age 50 if you are disabled prior to the death of your spouse or within seven years thereafter. Collection must begin no later than your full retirement age, which is between age 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth. However, just as with collecting your own retirement benefits, collecting survivor's benefits before reaching full retirement age results in a reduced monthly payment. Those that begin collecting benefits on a deceased spouse's account between age 60 and full retirement age receive 71.5-99% of his or her spouse's normal benefit amount. This reduction is necessary to account for the additional years of collection incurred by those who retire early, but the reduction is temporary, and benefits revert to the full amount when the beneficiary reaches full retirement age.

In addition, the amount that can be paid to eligible spouses is based on the maximum amount that would have otherwise been paid to deceased parties if they were still alive. If your spouse began collecting benefits prior to reaching full retirements age, the monthly payment would have been reduced to account for the additional years of collection, and any survivor's benefits collected after his or her death would be based on that reduced amount. Thus, a widow who began collecting at age 60 and whose deceased husband had already begun collecting benefits prior to full retirement age would receive a lower monthly payment than a widow who deferred collection until full retirement age and whose husband had not yet begun collecting prior to death, even if both men had otherwise identical wage histories.

If you are eligible to collect benefits on your own account, you do not have to worry about forfeiting them if you collect survivor's benefits on your spouse's account. Regardless of when you begin collecting survivor's benefits, you are still eligible to collect your own retirement benefits after age 62. However, depending on your wage history and that of your deceased spouse, switching to your own benefit account may be less lucrative than collecting survivor's benefits. The Social Security Administration website has links to various calculators that can help you estimate your potential benefit amount for different scenarios based on information you provide about the wage history, age, outside pensions, and anticipated retirement age of you and your spouse.

There are also various provisions that provide survivor's benefits for dependent children or parents and for divorced spouses. Because individual circumstances can vary so widely, it is not possible to apply for survivor's benefits online. However, you can always apply by phone or by making an appointment at your local Social Security office. Updated requirements and contact information can be found on the SSA website.

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