What happens to my Social Security benefit if my husband dies?


My husband and I are both 65 and retired but are waiting to claim Social Security benefits until we can get an answer to one important question: I worked (part time) enough to receive about 20% of what my husband will receive. If he dies first, we’ve been told I would lose my Social Security and receive either his entire amount or half his amount. Can you provide clarity on this? Does waiting until full retirement age (66-1/2) affect this? If so, does either one or both need to reach full retirement age? Seems important to us!

There seems to be a lot of confusion around Social Security survivors benefits

This is not surprising, because the rules for determining the amount of a Social Security survivor benefit can be pretty complicated. For the sake of clarification, the survivor benefit referred to throughout this article is known within the Social Security Administration as the “widow(er)’s benefit.”

When a primary wage earner dies, the Social Security system has a way to provide a benefit for the surviving spouse. Survivor benefits are generally equal to the primary wage earner’s retirement benefit—this benefit replaces other spousal retirement benefits (including the one that is equal to 50% of the primary wage earner’s benefit, available while the primary wage earner is living—see here for more detail).

The mechanics of the Social Security survivor benefit can apply to widows or widowers at various ages, depending upon the circumstances. Survivor benefits can also be available to the children and/or dependent parents of the primary worker. In this article we’ll focus on the surviving spouse and how the survivor benefit works for a widow or widower.

When the primary wage earner dies, the surviving spouse is eligible to receive a retirement benefit based on the primary wage earner’s retirement benefit. In general, the unadjusted survivor benefit is equal to the actual benefit that the deceased spouse was receiving. This can be adjusted in two ways:

  1. By the age of the worker when he or she started receiving retirement benefits. If the deceased worker started his or her own benefit prior to FRA, then there is a minimum “floor” that the benefit is reduced to — this might result in a slightly larger survivor benefit.

  2. By the age of the surviving spouse when he or she begins receiving the survivor benefit. At any age before FRA for survivor benefits, there will be a reduction.

Otherwise, the survivor benefit would be equivalent to the retirement benefit that the decedent had been receiving. This benefit would then take the place of the survivor’s own retirement benefit, upon entitlement to the survivor benefit.

Of course, if the surviving spouse’s own retirement benefit based upon his or her own record is equal to or more than the deceased spouse’s benefit, the surviving spouse will simply continue to receive only his or her own retirement benefit. The survivor benefit is not payable if it’s not more than a currently-received retirement benefit. This assumes the surviving spouse has already started receiving a benefit based on his or her own record.

If the surviving spouse has not yet begun receiving retirement benefits based on his or her own record, there is a choice to make. Assuming the appropriate age(s), the survivor benefits could be started right away, delaying retirement benefits; or retirement benefits could start while delaying survivor benefits.

If the surviving spouse elects to begin receiving survivor benefits before full retirement age (FRA), the benefit is subject to actuarial reduction. Since a surviving spouse is eligible to begin receiving early benefits at age 60 (instead of age 62 for regular or spousal benefits), the “usual” FRA table is adjusted by two years. Whereas FRA for regular or spousal benefits for those born between 1943 and 1954 is age 66, FRA for a survivor benefit is 66 for those born between 1945 and 1956. If the surviving spouse is disabled (by SSA definition), early benefits may be received any time after age 50, with the actuarial reduction assuming benefits begin at age 60 (no further reduction, in other words).

In addition to the benefit mentioned above, there is a parent’s benefit available to a younger spouse (less than full retirement age) if there is a child or children under age 16 that the surviving spouse is caring for. This also applies for a child of any age who has become permanently disabled before age 22. This parent’s benefit is equal to 75% of the FRA benefit (the PIA, Primary Insurance Amount) of the deceased spouse. The parent’s benefit only lasts until the child reaches age 16.

There is no increase to be gained by delaying receipt of the survivor benefit past FRA, so a widow or widower should begin receiving survivor benefits at FRA if eligible. It should also be noted that divorced spouses who survive a deceased worker are also eligible for the survivor benefit, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years before the divorce, and the surviving ex-spouse did not remarry (in a current marriage) before age 60.

Do you have questions about retirement, Social Security, where to live or how to afford it at all? Write to HelpMeRetire@marketwatch.com and we may use your question in a future story.




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