When my mother died in 1970, my father, Zola, knew nothing about the survivors’ benefits that were available to us from the Social Security Administration. Since I was a minor child of a deceased parent, my remaining parent (or guardian) was entitled to receive monthly benefits until I turned 22 (the maximum age has since fallen to 18).

Five years passed before Zola filed such a claim and began receiving hundreds of dollars per month. During these five years of financial hardship, he became a Believer and took a considerable cut in pay to begin his ministerial work. To his disappointment, the retroactive payments went back only six months. Being unaware cost my father, in today’s dollars, nearly $100,000!

Most of you readers are already aware that Social Security benefits for widows and widowers begin at age 60, even if the recipient has other income—unless they remarry prior to age 60. Word to the wise: a widow who is about to remarry at age 59 might enjoy a more secure retirement if she prolongs the engagement.

If a divorce occurs after ten years of marriage, those two ex-spouses remain eligible for widow/widower benefits on each other so long as (a) their ex passes away and (b) they’re single at or above the age of 60. In fact, a groom could entitle multiple brides to full widow benefits by marrying each of them for ten years, divorcing them, and then meeting his demise.

Remarriage before age 60 actually suspends such eligibility, but only until the subsequent marriage ends. To say it another way, a widow can claim benefits on her first husband’s Social Security, even if she remarries, once her second marriage ends.

It is a necessary step toward good stewardship to become wise as a serpent about Social Security. I have provided only the basics here. For more complete information, contact the Social Security Administration (1-800-772-1213). They are typically courteous, and they allow a family member or friend to assist you during the conversation. Since you may have to wait on hold for awhile, it is helpful to write down your questions before calling.

www.socialsecurity.gov is user friendly. You can do quite a bit online, including:

  • Locate a nearby Social Security office
  • Apply for benefits, including Supplemental Security Income to help the aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income
  • Find your full retirement age
  • Estimate your future benefits
  • Calculate retirement, disability, and survivors’ benefits

Searching “social security” at www.aarp.org will take you to helpful articles such as:

  • Understanding Social Security
  • Planning for Social Security
  • When to Start Social Security Benefits
  • Strategies to Maximize Your Social Security

Please consider enrolling to receive automated Social Security statements each year. Even though entitlements may change, it’s wise to keep up with this potentially sizable asset, informing our loved ones as well as ourselves.