Will I Be Able To Switch From Reduced Widow's Benefits To My Own Retirement Benefits?

Nov 29 2016 - 11:00am

Will I have a problem that I did not restrict the scope of my application when I applied for widow's benefits?
My husband died in 2009, and in 2011 I started collecting survivor's Social Security. My Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) is higher than my husband's, so I have been trying to survive on this smaller amount now, and planning to switch to my own benefit later. I had learned that I could earn delayed retirement credits on my own benefit, and switch to it as late as age 70. I have made many financial sacrifices to delay my own benefit as long as possible. I am 67 years old now, and am trying to wait until age 70 if I can. But I have great fear hanging over me that I could be deprived of this ability, and that all my sacrifices might be for nothing. This terrifies me, and so I ask your advice.

When I visited the Social Security Office to sign up for survivor's benefits, the representative told me that she had to apply for all benefits for which I am eligible. I was given a document entitled "Application Summary for Widow's or Widower's Insurance Benefits." This document states, "I apply for all insurance benefits for which I am eligible under title II (Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance) and Part A of Title XVIII (Health Insurance for the Aged and Disabled) of the Social Security Act, as presently amended." It also contains this statement: "I want benefits beginning with the earlier possible month based on my earnings." This happened even though the representative had talked to me about switching to my own work record later, and had given me copies of the Benefit Matrix for both my survivor's benefit and the benefit on my own work record, so I could see the effect of switching at various dates in the future. She seemed to understand what I wanted to do, so I trusted that she would make application in the correct way.

It was not until a couple of years later that I read on the web that widows must "restrict the scope of the application" when applying for widow's benefits, or they would lose the ability to switch to their own work record later. The Social Security POMS "GN 00204.020 Scope of the Application" states "The application must be restricted to allow the widow(er) to apply for a higher benefit subsequently payable on the other record because of lesser reduction for age." I had not restricted my application, so I was terrified.

On the other hand, I think these things might be in my favor:
1. I was 61 years old when I applied for survivor's benefits, so technically at that time I was not yet eligible for my benefit on my own work record.
2. The benefit that I actually received was a lower amount, not the higher amount I would have received on my own work record.
3. When I turned 66, I received a letter that contained this first paragraph: "You are now getting monthly Social Security survivor's benefits. However, our records show you may receive larger benefits if you apply for retirement benefits on your own social security number." The letter then provided instructions on how to apply. But it said nothing about waiting after age 66 to age 70, and nothing about delayed retirement credits.
4. Some time after that, I called the local Social Security office and got them to send me a listing that shows the benefits I would receive on my own work record between ages 66 and 70. It did show the 8% per year increases.

So I think I might be safe, but the documentation in POMS and elsewhere so clearly states that I should have restricted the scope of my application, that I am still afraid, and ask for your opinion. I have built all my plans around the hope that I will be able to make this switch. Do you think I am safe? Do you have any advice on what I should do, if anything? Would it be safer for me to make the switch earlier rather than waiting longer?
Thanks very much.
KC

Hi KC,

Based on what you've stated in your question, I certainly doesn't sound like you have anything to worry about. If you weren't within 4 months of age 62 when you filed your application for widow's benefits, it would not have been necessary for you to restrict retirement benefits from the scope of your application.

If you were within 4 months of age 62 when you applied, there is a question on widow's applications that says "Do you wish this application to be considered an application for retirement benefits on your own earnings record?". If applicable, the Social Security rep should have answered this question 'no'. If that was the case, a restrictive statement would be printed on your application, so you could check for that if you still have your copy of the application. However, this statement would not appear, nor would it be necessary, if you were not within 4 months of age 62 when you applied for your widow's benefits.

Best, Jerry