How to Get Thousands More in Social Security Survivor Benefits

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Published: January 26, 2018

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.

Let’s look at an example to see how much more you might get by knowing all your options.

Diane’s Social Security Survivor Options

Diane is a widow. Her husband, Paul, had passed away at 57 and she is now age 62. She is no longer working – but she had worked for most of her life. Here’s how Social Security works for Diane.

She is eligible for either her own Social Security retirement benefit, or a survivor benefit, which will be based on her deceased husband Paul’s work record.

Diane wasn’t exactly sure how it all worked, but she heard that she could collect a survivor benefit as early as age 60. Naturally, at 60 she went to the Social Security office to learn more. They told her she could collect this survivor benefit now, but that she would get more if she waited until age 62. Technically this was true.

Just before her 62nd birthday, she went back to her local Social Security office. They told her now that she was 62 she could collect her own retirement benefit amount, which would be $1,791 a month. But they also said if she waited until 66 she could collect a widow benefit based on Paul’s Social Security, which would be $2,706 per month.  (This higher widow benefit is based on the amount Paul would have received if he had lived and filed at his age 66). Technically this information they provided to her was also true.

So, what was the problem with this information given to Diane?

If Diane decides not to do anything and to wait and claim a widow benefit at her age 66, she’ll receive an estimated $620,193 over her 28-year projected lifetime – but she will forfeit up to $200,0000 that she can get over her lifetime. This $200,000 is measured in today’s dollars.

$200,000!

How can she get so much more?

There are claiming strategies that the workers at the local Social Security office were not aware of. It’s not their fault. It takes years to understand all the claiming choices available – and this is not what your Social Security office worker is trained to do.

So what can Diane do to get $200,000 more?

Well, normally when you file for Social Security benefits you are deemed to be filing for all benefits you are eligible for. Diane is eligible for her own retirement benefit or a survivor benefit. It makes sense that the Social Security office will check and see which one will pay her more if she files right now. But, widows and widowers have a very special option – they can file something that I call a restricted application. This means they can CHOOSE to apply for only one benefit type – either their own or the survivor benefit – and that preserves their option to later switch to the other benefit type.

“Whoa,” you might be thinking. This sounds complicated. It is.

Let’s put some numbers to it. At age 60, if Diane would have filed for her survivor benefit she would have gotten $1,767 per month. She didn’t because they told her she could get more by waiting until age 62.

At 62, she can get $2,025 per month as a survivor benefit. When she files, if she restricts her application to only that benefit type, her own retirement benefit remains untouched. Now, she collects $2,025 per month, her survivor benefit amount, plus inflation adjustments, all the way to age 70. At age 70, she files for her own benefit which by then, will be $3,674 per month. Over her 28-year projected life-time using this approach she’ll get a cumulative $823,196 in the equivalent of today’s dollars. (Note – this entire claiming approach with all the numbers is laid out in Chapter 3 on Social Security in the book Control Your Retirement Destiny 2nd Edition.)

Now let me clarify. She doesn’t get both her survivor benefit and her retirement benefit at the same time. At age 70, when she begins to receive her $3,674 monthly retirement benefit, her survivor benefit stops.

And why is her own benefit so much at age 70? Because you get a lot more per month if you wait until age 70 to start benefits. In her case, it works well, because while she is waiting until she is able to collect on the survivor benefit.

Following a claiming plan puts a lot more money in Diane’s pocket over her retirement years.

This is just one example of how knowing the rules can increase your retirement income.

Can’t the Social Security Office Give you Advice?

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 for 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 and receive $1,000 per month immediately (John’s FRA amount.) However, for a younger woman who hadn’t reached her survivor’s FRA the monthly widow benefit amount would be less. For example, if Beth was 59, the earliest she would be able to claim a Social Security survivor benefit would be 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 age 60 and get a reduced amount. 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.

*Note – in this article I am using the term “widow benefits” which may also be called widower benefits or survivor benefits.

I cover many more rules, along with examples, in my book Social Security Sense, on Amazon.