Dear Dr. Don,
My husband started collecting Social Security on April 1, 2013, at age 65. He died Sept. 14, 2013, after collecting only six months of Social Security benefits. I spoke with someone at the Social Security Administration office who told me that I make too much money and that I’m not entitled to any of my late husband’s benefits. It appears that for every $3 I make, they take $1 of his benefit away. My annual income is about $42,000.

When a colleague’s husband died five years ago, she received her husband’s full benefit. I’m sure that she makes more money than I do. I don’t understand why she is entitled to her husband’s benefit.

It appears that I’ll lose my husband’s benefit unless I quit working. Then, I’d have to wait five months before I could start collecting survivors benefits based on his work record.

Thank you,
— Judy Justice

Dear Judy,
Whether you’re a survivor or drawing benefits based on your own work record, you’re subject to an earnings test when you receive Social Security benefits before your full retirement age of 66.

If you’re under full retirement age for the entire year, then the Social Security Administration deducts $1 from your benefit payments for every $2 you earn above the annual earnings limit.

For 2014, the earnings limit is $15,480. Here’s a look at your situation in 2014:

$42,000 (estimated earnings)

-$15,480 (annual earnings limit)

$26,520/2 = $13,260

Based on your estimated earnings, $13,260 would be withheld from your total yearly survivors benefit before you would be paid anything as a survivor.

In addition, the survivors benefit is reduced when you file before your full retirement age. I don’t know your exact monthly benefit, but a significant amount, if not all of it, would be withheld because of your earnings.

You could choose to receive a survivors benefit and switch later to a benefit based on your work record. That would allow you to earn delayed retirement credits until age 70.

Your colleague would have been subject to an earnings test and potential reduction of benefits when claiming a survivors benefit before her own full retirement age. The earnings test is different for particulars based upon the time someone reaches full retirement age.

This can be complicated, obviously. There’s one set of rules but different variables in determining benefits. I hope this helps.

Thanks to Edward Lafferty, a public affairs specialist at the Social Security Administration, for helping me with my answer.

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