A widow stands to leave a lot of money on the table if she employs the wrong strategy when it comes to claiming survivor benefits, according to an expert on Social Security benefits issues.

The general rule of thumb is that, unless the widow has an unusually short life expectancy, she should compare her maximum survivor benefit and her retirement benefits at age 70 and adopt the larger of the two amounts, said William Reichenstein, head of research for Retiree Income and Social Security Solutions, platforms designed to help advisors and near retirees to map retirement strategies

While it might be tempting to initially take the higher of her survivor benefit and her retirement benefit at the death of her spouse, said Reichenstein last week at the Invest In Women conference sponsored by Financial Advisor magazine, the widow must weigh all options to achieve the maximum lifetime Social Security benefits. The key is whether she can grow her retirement benefits at age 70 to exceed her maximum survivor benefits.

“In every case, compare your math. Don’t just take the higher of her survivor benefit and her retirement benefitat the death of her spouse,” said Reichenstein, also emeritus professor of finance at Baylor University.

And while that sounds simple enough, there are a few complexities a widow must work through to maximize her Social Security lifetime benefits. First, Reichenstein pointed out most retirees have two full retirement ages (FRA) – one for retirement and spousal benefits and another for survivor benefits. The FRA is 66 if you were born from 1943 to 1954 and increases gradually if you were born from 1955 to 1960, until it reaches 67.

For example, the FRA for retirement and spousal benefits for someone born in 1955 is 66 and two months and 66 for FRA survivor benefits.  It increases by two months each year up until 1961. “So, for the next seven years, people who are going to be making a Social Security planning decision have a different retirement age for their retirement benefits and their spousal benefits,” Reichenstein said, adding that it is also worth noting that someone born on January 1 of a year should use the FRAs for someone born in the prior year.

Reichenstein offers four claiming strategies, which he said should provide guidance for financial advisors when determining the best strategy to maximize a widow’s surviving lifetime benefits. Each scenario reflects the age of the spouse. The amounts also are before the cost-of-living adjustments.

1.Widows aged 70 and older: Reichenstein said in this situation, the surviving spouse should simply compare her retirement benefits with that of her survivor benefits and take the higher of the two amounts. That amount will be her lifetime maximum benefit, which she should begin collecting right away.

2. Widows between full retirement age for survivor benefits and 70: In this scenario, Reichenstein initially assumes that the widow has not yet begun her retirement benefits. He said if the high earner dies, the best strategy is for the surviving spouse to begin survivor benefits and switch to her own at age 70, if it is higher.

For example, she is 66 when her husband dies, and she has a primary insurance amount (PIA) – the benefit she would receive if she chose to begin receiving retirement benefits at her FRA – of $1,800, an FRA for retirement benefits of 66 years and four months, and an FRA survivor benefit of 66 years. Her husband began collecting $2,000 in monthly benefits at or after his FRA. Her best bet, Reichenstein said, would be to begin collecting survivor benefits and then switch to her benefits at age 70 because it would reflect 44 months of delayed retirement credits, which would be $1,800 x 1.2933 or $2,328. Delayed retirement credits beyond FRA increase benefits by 8% annually or two-thirds of one percent monthly.

On the other hand, Reichenstein noted that if the survivor benefits were $2,400 per month, she should begin taking that immediately and continue with that for her lifetime because it is higher than her retirement benefits would be at 70.

Another scenario assumes the 66-year-old widow has already begun to claim retirement benefits when her husband dies. If she began benefits five months ago, that would reduce her benefits to $1,710 or (95% of her PIA of $1,800) because she claimed benefits nine months before her FRA. But to maximize her lifetime benefits, Reichenstein said she can use one of three strategies:

• First, she can begin monthly survivor benefits of $2,000 and that would be for the rest of her life.

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