Kotlikoff: Widows lose thousands in Social Security benefits due to misinformation

Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff writes a regular column answering questions about your Social Security benefits.

Back in July, I wrote about John McAdams, a Social Security claims authorizer in Philadelphia who has worked for Social Security for a decade. John continues to risk his job by writing about Social Security’s ongoing policy of denying widows tens of thousands of dollars over time by not taking steps to fix mistakes that can cost them.

I’ll give an extreme example of a hypothetical 62-year-old widow, let’s call her Sarah, who comes to Social Security to file for a survivor benefit on her deceased husband or ex-husband’s work record. (In the case of a deceased ex, she had to be married to him for a decade or more). Let’s assume Sarah’s widow benefit is $2,001 per month and her own age-62 early retirement benefit is $2,000 per month.

Sarah is under no requirement to file for her retirement benefit at age 62. Indeed, she can wait until age 70 to file for it. At 70, it will start at a 76 percent higher level.

But the Social Security staffer files Sarah for both benefits. In doing so, he leaves Sarah with just her $2,001 widows benefit, because you can only collect the larger of the two benefits if you have filed (or been filed) for both.

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Laurence Kotlikoff

Laurence Kotlikoff’s state-of-the-art retirement software is available here, for free, in its “basic” version. His new book, “Get What’s Yours—the Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits,” (co-authored with Paul Solman and Making Sen$e Medicare columnist Phil Moeller) was published in February by Simon & Schuster.

Find a complete list of Kotlikoff’s columns here.

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