A widow or widower is eligible for a survivors benefit from Social Security even if they never worked – as long as the deceased spouse qualified for benefits based on his or her own income record. Also note that surviving spouses must have been married to their most current spouse for at least the nine months prior to their passing, or for 10 years if the couple was divorced.
When Can You Claim?
A widow/er may apply for benefits once she turns age 60; age 50 if she qualifies as disabled or if she is responsible for the care of a child under age 16 (or a mentally or physically disabled child aged 16 or older). However, if the widow/er applies for a surviving spouse’s benefit starting at age 60/50, that benefit will be permanently reduced from the maximum amount available if she were to wait until her own full retirement age.
What Is Full Retirement Age for the Widow/er?
For anyone born from 1945 to1955, their full retirement age (FRA) is 66. If born between 1955 and 1959, FRA increases by two months each year from age 66 to 67. FRA is age 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.
How Much Can You Get?
First and foremost, all Social Security beneficiaries receive the highest benefit for which they qualify. Therefore, if a surviving spouse would receive a higher benefit from her own record of earnings than that of the deceased spouse, then that’s the amount she will receive.
If the deceased was receiving Social Security disability benefits when he passed, the survivor benefit is based on the deceased’s disability benefit.
Normally, the spousal benefit equals half the benefit of the higher earning spouse. However, the surviving spouse benefit equals 100 percent of what the deceased worker would have received, including any delayed retirement credits he earned by postponing benefits to age 70.
The minimum surviving spouse benefit at age 60 is 71.5 percent of the available amount. This represents a permanent loss of 28.5 percent of the benefit available at FRA. The widow/er benefit is reduced for each month shy of his or her own FRA, so the closer they get to FRA before applying, the higher the benefit. The amount freezes once they begin drawing benefits, although it will increase incrementally based on cost-of-living adjustments.
The maximum benefit a widow/er may receive is 100 percent of what the deceased spouse would receive if he was still alive. However, that amount may already be reduced. For example, if the deceased began drawing benefits at age 62 instead of waiting until FRA, then that is the maximum benefit the widow/er is eligible for. If she begins drawing early before her own FRA, that benefit will be reduced further.
Ideally, the deceased will not have started receiving Social Security before his death. In this scenario, even if he died in his 50s, his maximum benefit is what he would have received at FRA. Now it’s up to the widow/er to time her survivor benefit – she can wait until her own FRA or take a permanently reduced benefit.
One strategy a widow/er may want to consider is to begin her own benefit at age 62, even if it is less than what she would draw as a survivor. Then she can delay drawing the survivor benefit until it grows higher – ideally the highest benefit at her FRA.
If the widow/er does not have her own benefit from earnings or can’t live on that amount alone, she may want to withdraw income from other sources, such as retirement savings or an annuity. While that may reduce her overall net worth, it’s important to remember that the Social Security benefit continues for life, so it may be worthwhile to get the highest benefit possible. Other accounts, such as an IRA or 401(k), will stop paying out income once they are depleted.
If the widow/er has the stronger earnings record, another option is to begin drawing the survivor’s benefit early and delay taking her own benefit until FRA or age 70, to receive a higher benefit for life based on her own record. Once she applies for her own benefit, the payout will increase to the higher amount.
Seek Professional Advice
Knowing when to begin drawing a widow/ers benefit can be challenging. The best option is usually based on factors such as other income resources, and even the widow’s health. If in poor health and not expected to live many years, it may be wise to begin the survivor’s benefit as soon as possible. Otherwise, it’s probably better to wait and get a higher payout for as long as she lives.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if the widow/er doesn’t know the deceased spouse’s FRA benefit at the time of death, she is not likely to find out until age 60. The Social Security shuts down the deceased’s account at death and won’t reveal the benefit until the widow/er is of qualifying age to begin receiving it. It’s always a good idea for both spouses to check (and share with each other) their accrued benefits each year so that they have accurate numbers to plan with in case one spouse passes away.