Claiming Social Security if you’re single or widowed

If you’re single, you have fewer options than your married friends, but you can still take steps to increase your lifetime benefits.

Single retirees who never married don’t need to concern themselves with survivor benefits. That gives single beneficiaries a less compelling reason to postpone claiming benefits after full retirement age. But suppose you’re healthy and want to postpone taking benefits so you can earn delayed-retirement credits. You should still file at 66 and suspend your benefits.

Here’s why: Ordinarily, Social Security will pay no more than six months’ worth of benefits retroactively. But if you file and suspend at age 66, you’re eligible to collect all of the benefits that accumulate after you file your claim. That could provide a significant cash reserve for unexpected expenses, such as a catastrophic illness or long-term care. This strategy also reduces the risk that you’ll die before you’ve had an opportunity to take advantage of delayed credits, says William Reichenstein, professor of finance at Baylor University and a principal with consulting firm Social Security Solutions.

Kiplinger has partnered with Social Security Solutions to offer a tool to uncover the most advantageous time to start collecting your benefits; visit kiplinger.socialsecurity for details.

Widows and widowers. You’re eligible for a survivor benefit based on your deceased spouse’s earnings. You can claim this benefit as early as age 60, or 50 if you’re totally disabled. The amount is based on your late spouse’s benefit when he or she died. If your spouse died before claiming Social Security, the benefit will be based on 100 percent of the amount due at your late spouse’s full retirement age.

Most widows receive a higher payment by claiming their husband’s monthly benefit instead of their own, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. And the age a husband chooses to start collecting his own benefit can have a significant effect on his widow’s ultimate survivor benefit.

To receive 100 percent of your late spouse’s benefit, you must wait to claim until your full retirement age. Otherwise, the benefit will be reduced by a certain amount for each month you file before your full retirement age. Remarriage won’t affect survivor benefits as long as you’re 60 or older when you remarry.

Don’t ignore your own benefits, though. If you expect to live a long time, it might make sense to claim survivor benefits, even if they’re smaller than your own, so your own benefits can continue to grow. Once you reach age 70, you can switch to your own benefit, which will have been enhanced by the delayed-retirement credits.

Sandra Block is a senior associate editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to And for more on this and similar money topics, visit