The Social Security Strategy Every Widow or Widower Needs to Know

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Claiming your Social Security retirement benefits as soon as possible is not recommended for most people. But in some cases, it’s actually the most optimal way to maximize your benefits from the program.

One such case is if you qualify for survivor benefits. Survivor benefits are available to widows and widowers, carrying up to 100% of a deceased spouse’s benefits. A survivor can get the most out of the Social Security program by claiming one of its benefits as soon as possible, then switching to the other benefit when it reaches its maximum value.

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How Survivor Benefits Work

Survivor benefits are available to widows and widowers who were married to the deceased at the time of death. You may also be eligible for survivor benefits if you were married for at least 10 years before you divorced and you are unmarried. You would also be eligible if you had been married for at least 10 years and were over 60 when you remarried.

The amount of Social Security benefits the survivor is entitled to depends on the age of the deceased and whether they have ever filed for Social Security.

Filing status Age Benefit from
Unclassified Before full retirement age 100% of full pension benefits
Unclassified After full retirement age Benefit as if they deposited on the day of death
Class Any The benefit they requested with a floor of 82.5% of full retirement age benefits

Table by author. Data source: Social Security Administration.

A survivor will receive 100% of the eligible benefit pending until full retirement age. However, they can apply as early as age 60, which will reduce the benefit by 28.5%. There is no advantage to delaying a survivor benefit beyond full retirement age.

If the survivor also becomes eligible for their own Social Security benefit, they can switch to their own benefit at any time. This opens the door to claiming one advantage earlier while delaying the other. Here’s how.

First apply for the survivor’s benefit

Let’s say you are entitled to a survivor benefit of $1,800 per month at full retirement age (67) and your own Social Security benefit is $1,500 per month at age 67. full pension.

If you delayed your own Social Security benefits until age 70, you would be eligible to receive $1,860 per month, which is more than the $1,800 benefit to claim survivor benefits at age 67.

Claiming the survivor benefit at age 60 will earn you $1,287 per month until age 70, when you can switch to the larger personal benefit. Although you have a few years before the switch to your personal benefit increases your payment, you’ll likely maximize your total payments by delaying as long as possible.

The chart below illustrates how claiming survivor benefits early and then switching plans compares to the reverse strategy. As you can see, you will get a lot more benefits by applying for the survivor benefit first.

A graph showing that claiming personal benefits at age 62 never catches up with claiming survivor benefits at age 60.

Table by author. Author’s calculations.

Claim your own advantage first

Claiming the survivor benefit first is not always the best choice. If the survivor benefit is significantly higher than your own benefit, it’s probably worth deferring it until your own full retirement age. In the meantime, you can apply for your own benefit early at age 62.

For example, if your full retirement age benefit is $1,500 per month and your survivor benefit is $2,250 per month, you would do well to claim your own benefit first. If your full retirement age is 67, you will receive $1,050 per month starting at age 62, then you can switch to the higher survivor benefit at age 67.

The chart below shows that the cumulative payout break-even point is 79.5 years. Most retirees should plan to live to age 80 or even beyond, so delaying survivor benefits in this case makes sense.

Graph showing that demand for personal allowances is rapidly catching up with demand for survivor's allowances.

Table by author. Author’s calculations.

Know what is available to you

It is important to know if you are eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. (Eligibility is actually broader than shown in this article.) It’s also important to know that you don’t have to claim your survivor benefits at the same time as your personal retirement benefits. This could be a major mistake because you’ll miss the opportunity to delay benefits and get a bigger monthly check later.

Be sure to review your options and see how different claim strategies will affect your payouts. But this is definitely a case where applying early will maximize your benefits.

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