Dear Rusty: My husband passed away 7 years ago at the age of 64, at which time he was receiving SS Disability. I was 58 at the time he passed and could not apply for his Social Security. I was still working but let SS know he was deceased, so his check was no longer deposited. I am now 65 and my age to reach full benefits without penalty is 66. I plan to work three more years before applying for Social Security. My question is: Can I apply for my deceased husband's SS benefits now and not my own without any penalties? And if so, what is the process? Thank you for your time and the information and resources you provide. Signed: Widowed Wife

Dear Widowed: Yes, as a widow you have the choice of claiming either your survivor’s benefit or your own benefit but claiming either before your full retirement age will reduce it. If you claim your survivor’s benefit before you reach age 66 it will be somewhat reduced from 100% of what your husband was receiving when he passed. Since you’re now 65, the reduction won’t be too severe (about 0.4% for each month before your full retirement age of 66). Your own benefit would be reduced by about 0.69% for each month before your full retirement age.

I suggest you evaluate which of your future benefits will be greater – the survivor benefit at maximum or your own benefit at maximum. Your survivor benefit reaches maximum at your full retirement age of 66, but your own SS benefit can continue to grow until age 70 when it would be 32% more than it would be at age 66. You may want to set a goal to claim in such a way that you can get the highest benefit for the rest of your life. If you know what your own benefit will be at your full retirement age, add 32% to that, and compare that number to the benefit your husband was receiving at his death.If your own at age 70 is more than he was receiving, then it would be wise to take the survivor benefit first and let your own grow by 8% per year until 70 and then switch from the survivor benefit to your own. If your survivor benefit at your FRA will be greater than your own at age 70, then it would be wise to let the survivor benefit grow to maximum at your full retirement age and claim it then.

In any case, to answer your question – yes, you can apply for your reduced benefits as a widow now or wait until you’re 66 to get the full benefit, and the way to do that is to contact Social Security directly and request your benefit as your husband’s widow. Survivor’s benefit cannot be applied for online, so you should call Social Security (find your local office at www.ssa.gov/locator) and request an appointment to apply for survivor benefits. When you make your appointment, Social Security will advise you if they’ll require any additional documentation. And if you wish to let your own benefit grow to age 70, then be sure to specify you are applying only for your survivor benefit, not your Social Security retirement benefit. Signed: Rusty

-By Russell Gloor, AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor