Q. I am currently collecting widow’s benefits, which started at my full retirement age of 66. My sister, who is divorced, was informed that she is entitled to her entire Social Security as well as one half of her ex-husband’s. Am I entitled to collect my entire Social Security and one half of my late husband’s?
— Widow

A. Social Security doesn’t exactly work that way.

You’re talking about survivor benefits, while benefits for a divorced spouse work differently.

When a spouse dies prematurely, the remaining spouse receives the greater of your two payments, said Stephen Craffen of Stonegate Wealth Management in Oakland.

“For example, if one spouse has a full retirement age benefit of $1,200 per month and the other has a benefit of $2,000, the remaining spouse will get the larger of the two benefits, or $2,000 per month,” Craffen said.

He said because the survivor benefit and the benefit a worker has based on their own earnings history are considered separately, some interesting planning strategies may exist.

In many cases, Craffen said, someone who is widowed or a widower may want to start their survivor benefit as early as 60 and delay their own benefit to age 70. Other times, based on the amounts, they may want to take their own benefit at 62 and delay the survivor benefit to full retirement age. He said there is no benefit to delaying a survivor benefit past your full retirement age.

So there are different formulas that apply to different types of benefits.

“Though you are already receiving your benefit based on your deceased spouse’s earnings history, you may want to consider delaying your own benefit to age 70,” Craffen said. “You may want to consider going to an expert to see if it makes sense to do that.”

Craffen said these days, he generally recommends that people plan in advance for Social Security and consider hiring an advisor that has access to some of the excellent software programs that are available. This can help to objectively examine the various claiming strategies for Social Security in combination with someone’s overall circumstance.

Karin Price Mueller writes the Bamboozled column for The Star-Ledger and she’s the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Click here to sign up for the NJMoneyHelp.com weekly e-newsletter. Like NJMoneyHelp.com on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.

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