survivor benefits
July 19, 2017 | by Chris Stein, CFP®, Finance Instructor at Colorado State University
Question on Survivor Benefits

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This week we were asked the following question via email:
“I am 65 and my wife is 53. I plan on waiting until 70 to claim SS to get the biggest benefit for me and my wife as survivor. My question is what happens if I died suddenly at age 69 and never claimed a benefit. What amount would she receive as survivor if she waits until her FRA to claim benefits?”

Surviving Spouse and Survivor Benefits

First of all, let me applaud you for considering survivor benefits in your decision on when to claim. Too often people will make the decision simply based on what they will receive at age 62 or 66 or 70, and not consider what will be left for their spouse once they pass away. When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse does not get to continue collecting both Social Security benefits. They are effectively left with just the larger of the two. Therefore it is important to consider what that single remaining benefit will be since it is highly unlikely both spouses will die at the same time, so one spouse may live many years with just the single benefit.

Basic Rule

The basic rule for survivor benefits, which are sometimes referred to as “widow/widower benefits”, is that the surviving spouse is entitled to receive whatever the deceased spouse was ACTUALLY COLLECTING as of their date of death, or what they COULD HAVE BEEN COLLECTING had they filed for benefits immediately prior to death. So the SSA will treat the situation as if you started collecting benefits the day you passed away. This means your wife would receive the benefit of the delayed retirement credits you were earning by delaying your application for benefits past your full retirement age of 66.

A Few Options

In your hypothetical situation where you pass away at 69, your wife would have a few options. First, she could wait to her full retirement age of 67 and then claim a widow’s benefit on your record, thus receiving whatever benefit you would have been able to collect at your age 69 (when you died). Since she will be only 57 at the time, she would have to wait 10 years in order to collect the largest widow’s benefit.

Her second option is to claim early and receive a reduced widow’s benefit. She could actually claim as early as her age 60, although her benefit would be reduced by 28.5% if she did. This reduction is pro-rated based on how many months before her full retirement age she is claiming. 28.5% is the largest reduction since age 60 is the earliest she could normally file. The rule is different if she is disabled, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

Best Claiming Strategy

You did not ask the question, but the situation you describe really would warrant an analysis of her best claiming strategy if you did pass away prior to her filing for any benefits. There are times that claiming the survivor benefit at age 60 can make perfect sense if she has other benefits for which she is eligible (like her own benefit from working). So I would encourage you to keep this in mind and make your wife aware that she should seek a competent analysis of her situation prior to actually filing for any benefits, or delaying any benefits past her earliest eligibility date.

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