The Widow or Widower’s Guide to Social Security Benefits

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The loss of a spouse is devastating, and in that situation, the last thing you want to worry about is money. Unfortunately, as a widow or widower, money is often one of the most important things to think about. And Social Security benefits are usually one of the first—and trickiest—financial resources to navigate. To help you wade through these waters, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to Social Security survivors benefits.

The Breakdown of Social Security Benefits

If you’re an eligible age and meet other qualifications, Social Security benefits are available to you after your spouse passes away. But it can be tough figuring out if you can receive these benefits and when you should start. Here are some of the main factors that impact how much survivors benefits you’re entitled to:

  • The length of the marriage
  • Your age and your spouse’s age
  • When you want to start receiving benefits

Understanding these factors and the rules to which they apply can help you make informed decisions and maximize your benefits payments.

The Length of the Marriage Matters

In nearly every case, you need to have been married for at least nine months to claim Social Security survivors benefits. However, there are a few exceptions:

  • You share a child. If you were married fewer than nine months but your spouse was the parent of your child, you can claim survivors benefits.
  • It was an accident. Accidental death can waive the nine-month requirement for Social Security benefits.
  • Military service. If your spouse dies in the line of active duty for the military, you are entitled to survivors benefits.

What if you were married more than nine months and later divorced? Surprisingly, you can receive survivors benefits from an ex-spouse if you were married for at least 10 years. In fact, if you were married for at least 10 years to more than one ex-spouse who is now deceased, you can choose the biggest benefit. But if you remarried before the age of 60 and are still married, you cannot receive these benefits.

Also, any amount you do receive may be shared with other family members who are also entitled to survivors benefits.

The Impact of Age

We all know that there are age requirements for collecting Social Security benefits, and those rules remain intact for survivors benefits. Survivors benefits are first available when you turn 60, but you stand to collect more benefits if you wait until full retirement age at 66 (if you were born before 1957) or 67 (if you were born in 1957 or later). Here’s a look at how age affects your Social Security survivors benefits:

  • Receiving benefits at age 60. If you start collecting Social Security benefits at age 60, you will receive only 60% of the full benefit.
  • Receiving benefits at full retirement age. If you can afford to wait until you’re 66 or 67, you can collect 100% of the benefits available.
  • Deferring benefits until age 70. After you reach full retirement age, you can elect to defer your benefits until age 70. This lets you accrue delayed retirement credits, which could increase your benefits payments.
  • Receiving benefits with a disability. If you are disabled, you can start collecting benefits at age 50. But the disability must have started before or within seven years of your spouse’s passing.

If you don’t need Social Security benefits right away to stay financially sound during retirement, consider waiting as long as possible for the most benefits.

The Decision of When to Start Collecting Benefits

Because the benefits payment increases with time, it’s smart to look at your budget and determine if you need to start collecting benefits immediately. Another important thing to note is that you can only collect one Social Security benefit—your spouse’s or your own. But you can switch from one to the other.

If you are still working, or plan to work until full retirement age, consider taking your spouse’s survivors benefits when they are available and then switching to your full benefits when you retire. This can get tricky, though, so it’s important to pay attention to a few financial areas:

  • Watch your paycheck. If you have yet to retire and are working and collecting survivors benefits, pay attention to your annual income. If you earn over a certain level, Social Security will withhold part of your benefits.
  • Keep taxes in mind. You may end up paying taxes on a much larger portion of your benefits if you work while collecting Social Security benefits.
  • Note who was the higher earner. Because the higher earner will have the larger Social Security benefit payout, determine which benefits will ultimately pay you more over the remainder of your life. If you are the higher earner, it’s smart to tap into survivors benefits as soon as possible and make the switch when you’re eligible for your own benefits at full retirement age. If your spouse earned more, think about collecting your benefits (even at a reduced rate), and then switching to survivors benefits when you reach full retirement age.

Sorting through the ins and outs of Social Security survivors benefits isn’t easy, especially after suffering the loss of your spouse. But a solid understanding of what you can receive and how to maximize those benefits can make your transition to single living somewhat easier. Before making any decisions, you should consult an expert—either a Social Security representative or a financial planner you trust. They can guide you through all the regulations and paperwork to make sure you’re taken care of.

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5 Ways an Identity Thief Can Use Your Social Security Number

Man's hand holding Social Security card. Computer theft on laptop.

Having your Social Security number or card stolen isn’t quite like getting your bank account information taken—though granted, both are stressful experiences. The major difference is that you can get a new bank account number, while the Social Security Administration very rarely issues new Social Security numbers.

Why You Need a Social Security Number

If you’re unsure what an SSN is, the Social Security Administration loosely defines it as a nine-digit number for identity-tracking purposes. Whenever you start a new job or apply for government benefits, you need your Social Security number: it will be used to verify your identity and record earnings. You can locate your Social Security number on your Social Security card—if you can’t find your card, make sure you reach out to the Social Security Administration directly.

How Social Security Number Theft Occurs

How someone finds out and steals your identity (or Social Security number) can happen in a variety of ways. They could gain your Social Security number by exploiting data breaches, sifting through the trash for personal documents, or using any number of other approaches. The thieves can then sell your identity to the highest bidder on the dark web.

What Happens When Someone’s Identity Is Stolen

Once an identity thief has your Social Security number, they can commit all sorts of financial fraud with it, potentially leaving you on the hook for their misconduct.

Look at it this way: Social Security numbers are wrapped up in most aspects of Americans’ lives—employment, medical history, taxes, education, bank accounts, and so on. Below is a list of just a few things someone can do with your SSN if they get their hands on it.

1. Open Financial Accounts

Your Social Security number is the most important piece of personal information a bank needs when extending you credit or opening an account. With that number, a thief can get credit cards or loans, and when it comes time to repay them, they won’t, damaging your credit in the process. Those missed payments are tied to your Social Security number, so they’ll end up on your credit report and could impact your ability to apply for any type of loan or new account in the future.

Once you spot suspicious transactions, you can use your credit scores and credit reports to detect fraud and put an end to it. Unfortunately, it could take years for the fraudulent information to be removed from your credit report and, as a result, for your credit scores to recover.

2. Get Medical Care

Someone using your Social Security number could also undergo medical treatment, effectively tainting your medical records. Inaccurate medical records can have deadly consequences—for example, imagine what could happen if you received treatment based on a false history listing the wrong blood type. Additionally, it’s possible for thieves to poach your health insurance coverage, which could leave you in a bind when you need it.

3. File a Fraudulent Tax Refund

Taxpayer identity theft is a growing problem. Identity thieves use stolen Social Security numbers to get a fraudulent refund, which then delays any refund the victim is rightfully owed. In 2016, the IRS identified $227 million lost in fraudulent tax returns, and this issue is bound to become even more problematic in the wake of massive data breaches like the 2017 Equifax hack.

So the sooner you file your taxes, the more likely you’ll get your refund before an identity thief has an opportunity to take advantage of your stolen identity. You’ll know someone stole your identity if your return is rejected as a duplicate—then you get to start the process of resolving the fraud and, if necessary, getting the refund you deserve.

4. Commit Crimes

Getting your Social Security number might just be a fraction of the thief’s crimes. If the identity thief gets arrested for another crime and gives your Social Security number to law enforcement, you’ve become tangled in their criminal history. Their criminal record could prevent you from getting jobs or interfere with anything else that requires a criminal background check.

5. Steal Your Benefits

A thief could also use your Social Security number to file for unemployment or Social Security benefits, depleting those resources and preventing you from accessing that assistance when you need it later on.

How to Find Out If Your Social Security Number Has Been Stolen

Thieves can operate under your identity for years without discovery, and some of these crimes are very difficult to detect. One of the best things you can do is regularly check a free credit report. Review your credit report thoroughly for unauthorized accounts or public records not related to you. These red flags could indicate clerical errors or identity theft. Either way, you want to watch out for it and act as soon as you see something suspicious. You can also check out these other ways you can find out if you’re a victim of identity theft. 

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Oops. I Gave My Social Security Number to a Stranger

Life can get hectic and, while media attention on big data breaches has certainly put folks on high alert, there are times when you slip and give some of your personal information away.

Lots of this info, like your credit card account and health insurance ID, can be changed with relative ease. There are nine little digits you’re stuck with, however, that can cause a whole lot of headaches when they fall into the wrong hands. Those digits, of course, are your Social Security number.

Am I Stuck With My Number?

If your Social Security number has been put to nefarious use, you can try to have it changed. SSA.gov lists an identity theft victim continuing to be disadvantaged by “the original number” as one of five cases in which they’ll consider assigning new digits. Per their site, you’ll need to do the following in order to qualify:

  • Apply in person at a Social Security office.
  • Provide a statement explaining the reasons for needing a new number.
  • Provide current, credible, third-party evidence documenting the reasons for needing a new number.
  • Provide original documents establishing U.S. citizenship or work-authorized immigration status; age; identity and evidence of a legal name change, if appropriate.

According to Adam Levin, co-founder of Credit.com and author of “Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves,” it can be difficult, if not downright impossible, to get a new number. And even if you do qualify, you may want to consider the impact of making a switch. In many cases, employment information and medical records are associated with your former Social Security number.

What If a Stranger Has My SSN?

If you know your Social Security number has been compromised, you should do a credit freeze, Levin said. Credit freezes let consumers deny potential creditors access to their credit reports, and, as such, prevent new accounts from being taken out in their name, especially when their credit is frozen at each major credit reporting agency.

Of course, a credit freeze will also make it harder to take out new lines of credit. You would have to thaw your report and then refreeze it (often for a price) before applying for a loan. Levin said you can lessen the hassle by asking a prospective creditor what bureau they use to check credit. If there’s only one, you’ll just have to thaw your report with that bureau.

If you’re hesitant to freeze your reports, at the very least, you should keep a close eye on your credit. You can sign up for credit monitoring or fraud alerts with each bureau, and you can check your credit yourself. (You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and view your credit score for free each month on Credit.com.) Signs your identity has been stolen include unfamiliar addresses and accounts, and a sudden drop in your credit score.

Dealing With Identity Theft

Keep in mind “just doing a credit freeze and just monitoring isn’t going to help you in certain situations,” Levin warned, especially when it comes to a compromised Social Security number. Keeping an eye on your credit, for instance, won’t alert you to medical identity theft, taxpayer fraud or, worse, any criminal activity linked to your name.

To minimize the damage any of these examples could cause, you’ll need to stay vigilant. Keep a close eye on statements, like any bills or explanation of benefits your insurer sends your way. You can file your taxes early to avoid a stolen refund, and contact the IRS to flag your account, Levin said (although this is not fail-safe).

If you do fall victim to identity theft, you’ll want to report the fraud to the proper authorities: File a police report and register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Some states also give victims special documentation that identify them as an identity theft victim and can help reverse fraud stemming from it, Levin said. These ID cards can often be obtained by contacting the state attorney general’s office. You can learn more about dealing with identity theft here.

[Offer: If you’re a victim of identity theft, worried about errors on your credit reports and you don’t want to go it alone, you can hire companies – like our partner Lexington Law – to manage the credit repair process for you. Learn more about them here or call them at (844) 346-3296 for a free consultation.]

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