The Social Security rule book is so long, complex and ever-­changing that even Social Security employees don’t understand it all. And among the trickiest questions are those related to the death of a spouse. So we went to one of the most ­knowledgeable Social Security experts in the country and asked for answers to some of the thorniest questions that widowed Social Security recipients often ask. His answers can help you maximize your benefits without breaking tricky rules and potentially losing money…

My wife died after I started my Social Security benefits. Can I now suspend my benefits and claim widower’s benefits based on my late wife’s earnings so that my own benefits can increase until I claim them at age 70? (My benefits are larger than my wife’s.) 

These sorts of situations come up all the time. Unfortunately, in this case the answer is no—once you begin taking your own retirement benefits, you cannot suspend them and claim a ­widower’s benefit instead. 

There is one potential way around this. If no more than 12 months has passed since you began receiving your benefits, you have the option of withdrawing your application for retirement benefits by filing form SSA-521 and repaying all of the benefits you have thus far received (including any benefits paid to your children or late wife based on your earnings history). If you do that, it’s like you never applied for your benefits in the first place, freeing you to claim widower’s benefits until you reach age 70, at which point your own benefits will reach their maximum level (aside from future cost-of-living adjustments). You are limited to no more than one application withdrawal of this type for your entire life. 

My husband died decades ago when we were quite young. I’m now nearing retirement age. Can I collect widow’s benefits based on his earnings even though he was in the workforce only a few years?

You probably can. This comes as a surprise to some people because wage earners typically need at least 10 years in the workforce to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, but different rules apply with the benefits of a widow or widower. The younger the age at which the spouse died, the less work history that is required. The system for calculating this is complex, but as few as six “credits” can be all that’s needed when a spouse dies young—and six credits can be earned in less than two full working years. 

There are a few caveats worth noting, though. To be eligible for widow’s benefits, you must have been married to your late spouse for at least nine months prior to his death. (This nine-month requirement is waived if the spouse died in active military service or under certain other circumstances.) And you must not currently be remarried unless you did not remarry until you were at least 60 years old. 

I’m about to reach my full retirement age of 66, but I had been planning to wait until age 70 to start Social ­Security to get as much as possible each month. However, my husband passed away, and my widow’s benefit would be larger than my own benefit. Should I put off claiming my widow’s benefit until age 70, too?

No. Unlike your own benefit, widow’s benefits never grow any larger than they are when you reach your full retirement age. There is no upside to delaying claiming a widow’s benefit any longer than that, and there is considerable downside to doing so—you would miss out on four years of monthly benefits.

I know my monthly Social Security retirement benefits will be less if I start collecting as soon as I become eligible at age 62 rather than wait until my full retirement age. But if I switch to a widow’s benefit based on my late husband’s benefit when I reach full retirement age, will that be reduced, too, because I started my own benefit early? He waited until his full retirement age before claiming.

Your plan to claim your own benefits now and switch to widow’s benefits later sounds reasonable. Here’s why: If you were to claim your widow’s benefit before you reach full retirement age, you would not receive your late husband’s full benefit even though he waited until his full retirement age to start claiming. Instead, it would be permanently reduced because you took it early. By waiting until your full retirement age to claim the widow’s benefit, you will receive his full benefit even though you started your own benefit early. 

My first marriage ended with my husband’s death, and my second ended in divorce. Will I be able to claim a widow’s benefit based on my first husband’s earnings? 

You probably can, as long as your first marriage lasted at least nine months. As you might already know, remarrying before you turn age 60 typically negates the right to claim a widow’s benefit based on an earlier marriage. But if you are no longer married, you once again are entitled to receive your widow’s ­benefit from your first marriage. 

Social Security Marital Benefits Without the Wedding

You might be entitled to widow’s or spousal Social Security benefits even if you never actually wed your partner. The Social Security Administration recognizes common-law marriages—marriages where there was no official marriage ceremony or license but the couple lived together for an extended period as if married. But it does so only if the common-law marriage is recognized under the laws of the state where the Social Security recipient and his/her partner reside, or previously resided together, or if common-law marriages were recognized by the state when they lived there. Common-law marriages are ­recognized in Alabama, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. In several other states, common-law marriages that were entered into before specified dates are recognized. The burden of proof will be on you to establish that the relationship qualifies (or qualified, in the case of widowhood) as a common-law marriage. 

Bottom line: There are people who qualify for valuable spousal and widow’s benefits despite the fact that they never officially wed—and many of them probably don’t realize it.