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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

Answering Social Security Survivor Benefit Questions

A reader from New York asks if claiming a spousal benefit before Full Retirement Age (FRA) reduces the survivor benefit amount and what the survivor benefit will be.

"I have Social Security survivor benefit questions. Q1: Does claiming the spousal benefit before your FRA reduce your survivor benefit amount? Q2: Will the survivor benefit be the full amount of what the deceased spouse was receiving if the surviving spouse claims after reaching their FRA?"

The first question – about the relationship between when you claim your spousal benefit and your eventual survivor benefit amount -- comes up regularly because it isn't very clear to a lot of people.

Most people who have looked into Social Security realize that benefits will be reduced if you claim them before your Full Retirement Age (FRA). And when it comes to spousal benefits – considered "living benefits" – there can be lingering effects from claiming your own benefit early. In a scenario where combined benefits are eligible – say, your own and spousal – even though claiming the spousal benefit would mean a larger overall benefit, it won't be as much as it could be. You've already done permanent damage by claiming your own benefit early.

However, the answer is no when you ask if claiming the spousal benefit early can have lingering effects – such as reductions that transfer over to survivor benefits. There's what I call a firewall between the claiming strategy you choose to follow between your own benefits and your spousal benefits – and survivor benefits.

The survivor benefit has its own clock – its own set of rules – that is unaffected by what you might do with your own benefit or a spousal benefit. And this leads to your second question: "Will the survivor benefit be the full amount of what the deceased spouse was receiving as long as the surviving spouse claims after reaching his/her FRA?"

In short, if you claim a survivor benefit, you will be able to receive the total amount that the deceased spouse was receiving as long as you, the surviving spouse, only claim after reaching your FRA.

Now, if you claim your survivor benefit before reaching your FRA, the benefit will likely be reduced, but the reduction isn't a lingering effect from back when you claimed the spousal benefit.

Again, the coordination of these things seems quite confusing. Still, the good news is that you will not be punished permanently for claiming your own or your spousal benefit early, including after your spouse passes away. You're going to step into your spouse's shoes effectively. You'll receive whatever benefit they were receiving or whatever benefit they could have received had they claimed the night before they passed away – as long as you've reached your FRA before claiming that survivor benefit.

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