Social Security widow and widower benefit rules are complex.
The amount of the Social Security survivor benefits you are entitled to rests on a host of variables including your age, the age of the deceased, and how old your spouse was when they started their benefits.
If you think you can count on the Social Security office to explain your options, be careful. I’m not accusing the Social Security Administration of intentional malfeasance, but the rules are confusing, many of the staff don’t understand them, and they are not allowed to give you advice – they are only allowed to explain what you can get if you claim now. There are other options available, and the Social Security staff is not allowed to explain them all to you.
My best advice is to do your due diligence and reach out to a retirement planning expert if you find yourself in a situation where you are eligible to claim a Social Security widow benefit.
The best way to approach what you can get is by walking through an “If this, then that” scenario. Below we look at several different scenarios you could encounter. These rules apply to anyone who has been married at least nine months. In these examples, the male spouse passes first because women tend to live longer than men, but the examples apply to both widows and widowers, and same-sex couples.
To understand these rules, you must know about something called Full Retirement Age (FRA). The FRA of the deceased and the FRA of the survivor determine how much you can get, so it pays to know how it works. FRA for retirement benefits is age 66 for those born January 2, 1943, to January 1, 1955, then FRA gradually scales up to age 67 for those born January 2, 1960, or later. However, the scale is slightly different for widow/widower benefits. FRA for widow benefits is age 66 for those born January 2, 1945, to January 1, 1957, then FRA gradually scales up to age 67 for those born January 2, 1962, or later.
Let’s look at a few “if/then” scenarios depending on the age of death and age of survivor.
1. Your Spouse Passes Young – Before Their FRA
If your deceased spouse started their Social Security benefits before their FRA…
- Then you will receive a benefit that is the greater of what they were receiving or 82.5% of your spouse’s FRA amount. This 82.5% rule was established to protect a minimum benefit amount for a surviving spouse whose husband or wife started their benefits before reaching FRA. The earliest you can collect your survivor benefit is age 60 (assuming you have no children at home). However, if you begin benefits at age 60, they will be reduced to 71.5% of what you would get if you had reached your survivor FRA. (See the FRA survivor benefit page on the Social Security website for details on how this works.)
- Example 1: John has an FRA of 66 and would have received $1,000 per month had he begun receiving benefits at his age 66. Instead, he chose to start benefits beginning at age 62, at a reduced amount of $750 per month. John passes away before his FRA but after beginning his benefits. His wife Beth (when she reaches her full survivor benefit retirement age which we will assume is age 66), will receive a minimum survivor benefit of $825 based on the 82.5% rule (this amount is adjusted upward with inflation). This amount will be lower if Beth begins her widow benefit before reaching her survivor FRA.
If your deceased spouse passed before their FRA and had not started benefits…
- Then you receive what your spouse would have received at his/her FRA. This amount is reduced if you, the surviving spouse, have not reached your survivor FRA.
- Example: Let’s say John passes at age 60, before starting benefits, and Beth is age 68. She could begin widow benefits at John’s FRA amount of $1,000 per month immediately. However, if she hadn’t reached her survivor’s FRA the monthly widow benefit amount would be less. For example, if Beth is 59, the earliest she can claim a Social Security survivor benefit is her age 60, at which point she would get 71.5% of his FRA amount of $1,000, or $715 per month.
2. Your Spouse Passes After Their FRA
If your deceased spouse passed after their FRA and had started their Social Security benefits after reaching their FRA …
- Then, if you’ve reached your survivor FRA, you are entitled to the amount they were receiving.
- Example: John starts his $1,000 a month benefit at his FRA of 66. If he passes at age 66, while Beth is 60, she can choose to take her widow benefit at a reduced rate. Or she can wait until her survivor FRA of age 66 and get the full $1,000 a month. If John had waited until age 70 to begin claiming benefits, he would have gotten a higher monthly amount of $1,320 per month which would then be the survivor amount Beth would receive. Again, this amount would be less if she claimed it before her survivor FRA.
If your deceased spouse was older than their FRA when they passed and had not started claiming benefits…
- Then your benefit amount is based on what your spouse would have received at the age they passed, including increases due to something called delayed retirement credits. That is, the longer you wait until after FRA to access benefits, the more you receive each month. And, the more a surviving spouse is eligible to receive.
- Example: If John, not having begun benefits, passes at 69, Beth would collect his full FRA amount plus an 8% per year increase attributable to delayed retirement credits, or about $1,240 per month. The amount will be less if Beth files for her widow benefit before her age 66.
If you and your deceased spouse had both already started your benefits…
- Then you, the surviving spouse, can continue the larger benefit amount (but not both!)
- Example: Assume John and Beth are in their late 60’s or their 70’s, and both are collecting benefits. If John passes before Beth, and his benefit amount is greater than hers, she will get his monthly amount going forward but no longer receive her retirement benefit.
One of the unique options available to widows/widowers is the ability to claim a widow/widower benefit and then later switch to your retirement benefit (and vice versa) even if you claim before FRA. Multiple potential claiming strategies should be examined before the surviving spouse decides what’s most sensible.
Because the rules are complex, we use software that evaluates the claiming choices.
As retirement planners, we focus on decumulation planning (as opposed to accumulation). Determining what Social Security benefits you are entitled to is a big part of decumulation planning. Make sure you know as much as possible about the benefits you are entitled to so you don’t leave thousands on the table.
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