Social Security widow/widower rules are complicated, and many people miss out on money by making a decision about when to take their benefits without understanding all the choices that are available to them. It pays to do your homework before claiming your Social Security benefits.
Social Security pays out benefits to widows and widowers of a worker who was eligible for Social Security, as long as you were married to them for at least nine months.
The amount of benefit that a widow or widower will receive depends on four things.
- The deceased spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA) which is the amount they would have received at their Full Retirement Age (FRA).
- Had the deceased spouse begun collecting benefits yet?
- Had the deceased spouse reached their Full Retirement Age before their death?
- Has the surviving spouse reached their FRA yet?
I cover items 2 - 4 below.
If The Deceased Spouse Had Begun Benefits
- and had begun benefits before they reached their FRA, then the surviving spouse is entitled to the larger of what the deceased spouse was getting or 82.5% of their PIA amount, subject to a reduction if the survivor is not yet FRA.
- and had begun benefits at their FRA or later, the surviving spouse is entitled to what the deceased spouse was getting, including any delayed retirement credits, subject to a reduction if the survivor is not yet FRA (or the surviving spouse could collect their own benefit, if larger).
Note 1: The schedule to determine your Full Retirement Age is slightly different for retirement benefits than for widow/widower's benefits. This is covered in the Full Retirement Age article.
Note 2: If you begin benefits before you reach your FRA and your continue to work, if your earnings exceed the Social Security earnings limit your benefits will be reduced. Once you reach FRA this reduction no longer applies.
If The Deceased Spouse Had Not Begun Benefits
- and died prior to FRA, then the widow(er) is entitled to 100% of the deceased spouse’s PIA if they have reached their own FRA. The widow (er) benefit will be reduced if the survivor begins benefits prior to their own FRA.
- and died at FRA or older, then the surviving spouse is entitled to whatever they would have gotten at their date of death, including the application of any delayed retirement credits, subject to a reduction if the survivor is not yet FRA.
That’s clear as mud, isn’t it? The widow/widower benefit rules were put in place when it was more common to have a non-working spouse. The point of the rules was to make sure the system provided some income for a surviving spouse who may have no other source of income.
Social Security Widow Benefits for an Ex-Spouse?
If you were married to them at least ten years, and you did not remarry before you reached age 60, then you may also be eligible to collect a Social Security widow or widower's benefit on an deceased ex-spouse's record. Yes, you really can.
Should You Take Your Benefit or the Social Security Widow/Widower Benefit?
One option you have as a widow or widower is to take a widow/widower’s benefit and later switch to your own benefit, or vice versa.
For example, one widow I worked had these two options:
- Take a survivor benefit at age 60 of $18,180 a year, then at her age 70 switch to a widow’s benefit and get $20,304.
- Or she could take her own benefit amount starting at her age 62 of $10,752 a year, and then at her age 66 switch to her widow’s benefit which would then be $24,480 a year.
Upon first glance, taking the money at her age 60 seemed like a good idea, but when we crunched the numbers out over her life expectancy, choosing option 2 will provide her more lifetime income (at least $30,000 more) and a more secure inflation adjusted income at age 66 and beyond (assuming she lives to age 86 or later).
Before deciding when to begin your Social Security benefits you may want to use a Social Security calculator that can account for widow/widower/s benefits, or consult with a retirement planner who offers advice on Social Security strategies.
You can find more information on Social Security Widow/Widower’s benefits and how to apply for them at: Social Security Survivor Benefits for a Spouse