How to Get Maximum Social Security Survivor Benefits

Dana Anspach

July 9, 2021

Social Security widow and widower benefit rules are complex. The maximum amount of 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 began their benefits. Below we lay out the rules. Then we go through a practical example of how easy it can be to mess up and miss out on extra benefits.

Survivor Benefit Basics

First, there are two terms that you need to know before the rest of the rules make sense. Those are full retirement age and restricted applications.

Full Retirement Age – Survivor rules, like many aspects of Social Security, hinge around FRA, which stands for Full Retirement Age. This age is defined by the Social Security Administration and varies slightly based on your year and month of birth. If you were born on January 2, 1960, or later, your FRA for retirement benefits is 67. If you were born before 1960, your FRA would be 66 or 66 and some number of months. To complicate matters, there is a separate FRA schedule for survivor benefits. As a widow or widower, if you were born January 2, 1962, or later, you can receive maximum survivor benefits at age 67. While you are eligible to receive a survivor benefit as early as age 60, it will be a permanently reduced monthly amount if you access it before your survivor FRA. To calculate options, you’ll need to know the deceased spouse’s FRA for retirement benefits and the widow or widower’s FRA for survivor benefits. In addition, if you claim any benefit before your FRA and you continue to work, you are subject to the earnings limit, which says if you earn more than the limit, you’ll owe some of the benefits back.

Restricted Applications – 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. You do this by filing a restricted application, thus restricting the application to either your survivor benefit or your retirement benefit. This option is not available for spousal benefits – but it is available to widows and widowers, and even ex-spouses if their prior partner has passed.

Now, let’s look at how these rules apply over a combination of ages and benefit start times. These rules apply to anyone who has been married for at least nine months. In the examples below, the male spouse passes first because women tend to live longer than men, but the examples apply to widows, widowers, and same-sex couples.

1. Spouse Passes Before Their FRA and Had Begun Benefits

If your spouse begins benefits and then passes away before attaining their FRA, you will receive a benefit that is the greater of what they were receiving or 82.5% of their 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.

As mentioned, 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.

Example 1: John has an FRA of 67 and would have received $1,000 per month had he begun receiving benefits at his age 67. Instead, he chose to start benefits beginning at age 62, at a reduced amount of $700 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), 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.

Example 2: Suppose John had begin benefits at age 66, one year before his FRA? He would be getting $933 a month and when he passed Beth could continue to receive that amount as long as she had attainded her survivor FRA, or she could receive a reduced monthly amount if she claims at a younger age. If Beth worked and is eligible for her own benefit, she may want to file a restricted application and claim her widow benefit, and then at age 70 switch to her retirement benefit.

2. Spouse Passes Before Their FRA and Had NOT Yet Started Benefits

What if your spouse passes away before reaching their FRA but had not started their benefits yet? Then you receive what your spouse would have received at their FRA. This amount is reduced if you, the surviving spouse, have not reached your survivor FRA.

Example 1: 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, if Beth was already receiving a retirement or spousal benefit she would continue to receive whichever monthly amount was larger – the survivor benefit of $1,000 or the amout she’d already been getting – but not both.

Example 2: If Beth was younger and 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. And if she continued to work, she would be subject to the earnings limit until she reaches FRA. If she waits to claim until her survivor FRA (likely between age 66 and 67 depending on her date of birth), she would receive the $1,000 a month and would not be subject to the earnings limit.

3. Spouse Passes After FRA and Had Begun Benefits on or After their FRA

If a spouse passes after attaining their FRA and had started their Social Security benefits after reaching their FRA, and the survivor has reached their survivor FRA, the survivor is entitled to the amount the deceased spouse was receiving.

Example 1: John starts his $1,000 a month benefit at his FRA of 67. If he passes at age 68, and 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 to receive the full $1,000 a month. It’s not all or nothing, so if Beth waits to age 62, or 64, she could start her survivor benefit then, and receive an amount larger than she would have gotten at age 60, but less than the $1,000 she can recieve at her survivor FRA.

Example 2: 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 at her survivor FRA.

4. Spouse Passes After Their FRA and Had NOT Yet Started Benefits

Many spouses delay claiming benefits so they can get a larger amount. What happens if your spouse passes away after reaching their FRA, at age 68 or 69, but had not begun benefits yet? In this case, 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 survivor FRA.

5. Spouse Passes and Both of You Had Already Begun Benefts

Ideally, we live a long, happy life, and both spouses are in their 70’s and beyond and receiving their Social Security benefits. In this scenario, when one spouse passes, the surviving spouse can continue the larger benefit amount – but they can’t collect a survivor benefit and their own. Whichever monthly amount is smaller will stop, and the larger monthly check will continue.

Example: Assume John and Beth are in their late 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.

In all our examples, if the surviving spouse was already receiving benefits, they will either continue to receive what they were getting, or if it is larger, they can switch to the survivor benefit – but they cannot collect both simultaneously. If a surviving spouse had recently started benefits, there are rare cases where it would make sense for them to stop, repay what they had received, file a restricted application for survivor benefits, then plan on switching to their retirement benefit at age 70.

As you can imagine, trying to remember all these rules is not easy. Because the rules are complex and we don’t want to miss any nuances that could result in larger checks, we use software that evaluates the claiming choices and spits out the options.

You might wonder, “Can’t you just go by the Social Security office and figure out your options there?” You can try, but they aren’t set up to give an answer that will maximize what you get over your lifetime. Let’s look at what happened to Diane when she tried her local office.

Diane’s Social Security Survivor Options

Diane’s husband, Paul, passed away at 57 when Diane was 59.

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, she went to the Social Security office to learn more. They told her she could collect her survivor benefit in a few months when she turned 60 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. As she was now 62, they told her 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 FRA of 66). Technically this information they provided to her was also true.

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

Diane 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. She cannot collect both simultaneously, but she can collect one, then stop and switch to the other by filing a restricted application. The Social Security personnel, and the computer systems they use, are set up to tell you the maximum amount you can get now. Their system doesn’t calculate how it works if you use claiming strategies like a restricted benefit.

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 an unusual option – they can restrict their application. This means they can CHOOSE to apply for only one benefit type – either their own or the survivor benefit – and thus preserve their option to later switch to the other benefit type.

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 $1,791 for her retirement benefit or $2,025 per month as a survivor benefit. When she files, if she restricts her application to only her survivor benefit, her retirement benefit pool remains untouched. Now, she collects $2,025 per month, her survivor benefit amount, plus inflation increases, 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 lifetime 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.)

Instead, if Diane waits and claims her full widow benefit at her survivor FRA of age 66, she’ll receive an estimated $620,193 over her 28-year projected lifetime – but she will forfeit up to $200,000 that she could receive by following a claiming strategy that uses the restricted application.


How to Find the Right Claiming Option for You

If you are a widow or widower or helping someone who is, there are several things for you to do.

First, read up on the rules, so you have a basic understanding.

Second, gather all the information and get copies of Social Security statements. Look up FRAs and write them down, so you are clear on what applies. And of utmost importance, don’t make a quick decision at the Social Security office. Go there to get information if you need to but don’t file until you know all the ramifications, including the ability to use restricted applications and the impact of the earnings limit. And be aware that sometimes the Social Security agents will tell you that you cannot file a restricted application. They are often unaware that this option is available to widows and widowers, and you may have to request a supervisor.

Third, take the time to run the numbers through software, pay a Social Security consultant to do this for you, or hire a retirement planner. Expert advice is well worth it when making permanent decisions about lifelong income.

As retirement planners, we focus on decumulation planning (as opposed to accumulation). A key factor in decumulation planning is determining what Social Security benefits you are entitled to. Make sure you know as much as possible about the benefits you are entitled to so you don’t leave thousands on the table.

Financial Sense Newsletter