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Q&A: How Can You Determine Your Social Security Survivor Benefit?

Your spouse's social security benefit may be more than yours - and you're entitled to it.

Question: My father recently passed, after which my mother — who is 69 — started receiving a Social Security survivor benefit amount that was higher than her previous benefit, but not nearly as much as my father’s. A friend told her that she is entitled to her husband’s full benefit. Is that true? Could she claim my father’s benefit instead of the one she is receiving? Are there other options? I am not sure how old my father was when he started taking his Social Security benefit.

Ric: My condolences to you for your loss.

You’re allowed to start receiving Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62, but you get less per month than if you wait until your Full Retirement Age (FRA), which is around age 66 for most people these days.

Your mom is beyond her FRA, so she is entitled to 100% of what her husband was receiving. You and your mom should visit a local Social Security office and sort this out. The staff there can tell you exactly how much your mom is entitled to — and it might be more than what she started receiving after your father died. The situation won’t get worse, and it might get better — so you have nothing to lose.

Let me add one more nifty little point; I’m not sure how you’ll react to it. Because your mom is 69, she can remarry and keep getting that survivor benefit. You can decide if you want to tell her it’s OK (as far as Social Security is concerned) for her to get married again.

I have total assets of $343,000. I was thinking of paying off my mortgage, which is $43,000. It has a 5.25% interest rate with seven years left. I don’t like debt; I have no other debts. I’ve seen a couple of financial planners. One advised me not to pay off the mortgage and instead put 80% of my assets into blue-chip stocks.

Another told me to pay off the mortgage, then put half of what’s left into a variable annuity and the rest into diversified investments. I’m confused. What should I do?

Ric: I’m sure it’s annoying to visit two advisors and get totally different answers. I’m now the third, so this might make it worse!

As you noted, life is full of the unexpected. That’s why it makes no sense for you to give a big portion of your cash to the mortgage lender. You’ll never see that money again, and you might need it unexpectedly.

I know you don’t like debt, but why give the lender tens of thousands of dollars when the lender isn’t demanding it? Also, be aware that most of your monthly payment is principal, not interest. That means the loan is costing you very little and you should therefore keep it as a long as you can.

The next important question is this: How should you invest your money?

You’re 62, so you could easily live another 30 years. Your money must do three things, not just one: It must provide income now, ensure a higher income later (to compensate for inflation) and last your entire lifetime.

If it had to do only the first item (income now), it’d be easy: You could just stash the cash in a bank and generate enough income to meet your needs. I say this even though you’ll earn almost nothing in interest, because you need to withdraw only 2.8% this year for income.

But if you spend $800 this month, you’ll need more next year, even more in the year after that, and so on. In fact, you’ll need $1,600 25 years from now, based on historic rates of inflation. That means you must invest with the future in mind.

For that reason, say no to the annuity pitch you got. A variable annuity is meant to produce future income, not current income, and the guy selling it to you will earn a commission of perhaps 5%. (Did he tell you that?)

Neither should you put 80% into stocks — that is far too aggressive for your situation. We would suggest instead a far more diversified portfolio, using commission-free, low-cost investments like exchange-traded funds.

Call us to talk to one of my colleagues at our local offices for further information. We can show you how to build a portfolio that’s right for you, and we can help you build it too, if you wish.

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