Hi, Gail-

My husband was killed in a car accident three years ago when I was 59 years old. I just found out I was eligible for a widow’s benefit from Social Security when I turned 60. Can I file to get the benefits I should have received for the past two years? 

Thank you,
Colleen

Dear Colleen,

Unfortunately, no. But before we get to the specific rules about widow(er)s, let’s start with the big picture.

Filing Based On Your Own Work Record

The general rule that applies to anyone filing for benefits is that there is no retroactivity if an individual files for Social Security before reaching “full retirement age” (FRA), which is currently 66. According to Social Security spokeswoman Dorothy Clark, “The date that benefits can first be payable is the date the worker [or spouse files] an application and meets all factors of entitlement.”

In fact, if you have not reached FRA and you file for benefits based upon your own work, the amount you receive will be permanently reduced. You’ll find a chart that explains this here

If you’re not mathematically inclined, you can also use the Retirement Calculator on the Social Security. Once you set up an account, your personal earnings history will be used to estimate your actual benefits. By changing the date that you file, you can see how your monthly check will be affected. 

Flexibility for Family Members

If you file for retirement benefits based upon your own work history before you are FRA, there’s a bit of leeway in terms of benefits that may be paid retroactively to spouses and minor children.

For instance, say a 64-year old worker files to begin receiving benefits. He’s got a wife and a 14-year old daughter. Although separate applications for his spouse and daughter have to be filed in order for them to start receiving benefits, their applications will be back-dated to when the worker’s application was received, provided two conditions are met: a) the worker named them as auxiliary beneficiaries on his application, and b) the applications for these auxiliaries are subsequently filed in a “timely” manner. 

Now let’s say this same individual filed for Social Security when he was 66 years old, i.e. full retirement age, but didn’t know that his wife and minor child were eligible for benefits based on his work record

The next year, he learns about this and immediately takes steps to correct the situation by submitting applications for his spouse and daughter. In this case, both “auxiliary” beneficiaries are eligible for retroactive benefits, but only “for a period of up to six months [and] only back to [the worker’s] FRA,” says Clark.

Watch Out Widows

The rules are not as lenient for other types of beneficiaries. In terms of widows and widowers, if you have not reached “full retirement age” (FRA) when you apply for benefits “there is no retroactivity” at all- unless you meet one of these exceptions:

• You file for a widow(er)’s benefit the month after your spouse dies. In this case, you will receive one month of retroactivity. That is, your first check will be for the month in which your spouse died.
• You are disabled and are under age 61 in the month you file for a widow(er)’s benefit. In this case, you may receive up to 12 months of retroactivity.

There are a couple of additional technical exceptions that are beyond the scope of this article. My advice? If you’re widowed and not yet full retirement age, you cannot lose anything by applying for a retroactive widow’s benefit. Just don’t get your hopes up.

A widow(er)’s benefit is whatever amount your deceased spouse would have been eligible for if s/he were alive. However, if you file for a widow’s benefit prior to reaching full retirement age, the amount you receive will be reduced by 0.396 per month. Go here for a chart explaining this.

If a widowed spouse files for benefits after reaching full retirement age, there is no reduction. However, if you delay filing for this, the maximum look-back period is six months. If Social Security determines that you are entitled to retroactive benefits you will get the benefits in a lump sum.

Earnings Limit Test

Keep in mind that, like all Social Security benefits--your own, a spouse benefit, widow(er)’s benefit, divorced spouse benefit--if you are under FRA and receive both income from a job and Social Security, some- and potentially all- of your benefit may be withheld. It depends upon whether your earned income exceeds a certain amount.

The 2012 “Earnings Limit” is $14,640.(1) Let’s say you are 63 years old and receiving Social Security. Your former employer calls and offers you a temporary consulting position that will pay you $30,000 this year. Here’s how Social Security will calculate the amount of benefits it will withhold:

$30,000-14,640= $15,360

$15,360 divided by 2= $7,680

The important thing to understand is that this money is not “lost.” It is credited to your account at Social Security. You’ll begin to receive it once you reach Full Retirement Age and are no longer subject to the Earnings Limit. As Clark explains, “If some of your retirement benefits are withheld because of your earnings, your benefits will be increased starting at your full retirement age to take into account those months in which benefits were withheld.  This adjustment is automatic; i.e. no application or request is needed.” In other words, your benefit at FRA will actually be increased due to any benefits withheld in previous years.

1. In the year that you reach FRA, the Earnings Limit is higher and Social Security withholds less of your monthly check. This year, through the month before the month of your birthday, your check is reduced by $1 for every $3 you have earned above $38,880. Click here to calculate what your benefit reduction would be.

 

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist and an instructor in Franklin Templeton Investments' global Academy. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to: yourmoneymatters@gmail.com, along with your name and phone number.

 

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist and an instructor in Franklin Templeton Investments' global Academy. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to: yourmoneymatters@gmail.com, along with your name and phone number.