• Chris Stein, CFP®

How Can I Claim A Social Security Survivor Benefit?

A reader from Washington asks about claiming a Social Security survivor benefit.


My wife passed away in 2010 at the age of 52. I am now 64 and retired. Can I claim a survivor benefit? If so, what is the process?


The simple answer to the first part is “yes.” It sounds like you should be able to claim a survivor benefit as long as you and your spouse were married for the nine months before she passed – which is likely, given your ages. We don’t mention the 9-month requirement very often because of the age group we work with – not that many newlyweds.


One exception to the 9-month rule is if the death is accidental. The rule essentially exists so that people don’t get married on their deathbed to award a survivor benefit to someone they just met. Instead, it is meant to go to a legitimate spouse.


But Social Security does understand that your spouse could be hit by a bus a day after you got married. So because that wasn’t some scheme, they do have this exception to the 9-month rule.


Let’s assume you had the nine months under your belt before she passed away. Then yes, you have met that requirement.


Another qualification is that you have to be over age 60 (or over age 50 and disabled) to be eligible, which you are.


I have one more caveat to be aware of because of your age. You will only retain the survivor benefit on the record of your original spouse if you didn’t remarry until reaching age 60. Since you didn’t mention anything about remarrying, I assume that’s your case.


But if you did remarry before 60, you could undermine your ability to file a survivor benefit. It could be a deal-breaker unless you subsequently divorce or lose the second spouse through death. Then the rules change once again.


I always remind people that the survivor benefit is paid from a completely separate pool of money than the retirement benefit. Therefore, the benefit can be claimed independently from your own retirement benefit. That’s important. It means you can claim a survivor benefit, yet your own retirement benefit behaves as if you haven’t claimed anything at all.


You’re 64 right now, and you still have six years before your benefit will be at its maximum – at age 70. So a classic strategy in such a situation is to claim the survivor benefit off your wife’s record, for now, leaving your retirement benefit in the background to continue growing to its largest size at age 70 and then switch over.


Since your wife passed so young, it’s likely that your benefit grows to be larger than her survivor benefit. If that’s not the case, different strategies will come into play. But I’m assuming you’re asking this question because you’re thinking along these lines: “Can I collect something off her record right now as a survivor and wait for mine to grow until I get to 70?” If there were no survivor benefits, you normally wouldn’t collect anything.


Timing when to claim a retirement benefit is always a dilemma: “Do I collect now and get benefits started although they’re a lower amount? It means I’ll collect for a longer period.” But if you collect a survivor benefit, the wait is that much less painful. Delaying to 70 becomes even more attractive than it already would be because you can collect something while you’re waiting. In this case, the survivor benefit.


I don’t have any specific numbers to throw out as examples because you didn’t supply any. But, yes, you do qualify for a survivor benefit as long as you were married for nine months before your spouse passed, you’re over age 60, and you didn’t remarry before age 60.

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