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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

Social Security Survivor Benefit Rules and Clarification

A reader asks about the timing of Social Security survivor benefits.

“I am 66, and my wife is 57. I plan on waiting until age 70 to claim my Social Security benefit. Is my understanding correct that if I pass before my spouse but after age 70 and if I have started taking Social Security, she will continue receiving as a survivor benefit the total amount I had been receiving as a retirement benefit?”

You’re 66, and you’re planning to wait until age 70 to file for your Social Security retirement benefit. By my calculation, your spouse will be about age 61 at that time. When you pass away, she could receive 100% of what you received at 70 as a survivor benefit, but only once she reaches her own Full Retirement Age (FRA). If she were to claim her survivor benefit from your work record before turning 67 – say at 61 instead of waiting six more years – she would get a reduced survivor benefit, reduced permanently for the rest of her life.

Like retirement benefits, survivor benefits are reduced by claiming “early.”

So, it isn’t just you waiting to 70 that maxes out the benefit and makes it “permanent” for your spouse. In this case, she needs to wait until her FRA to get there.

Now, if you pass away late enough, say at age 80 when she’s 71, she’ll have gotten to FRA and, yes, she’ll get the total amount of what you were receiving.

So, it depends on how old she is when she starts receiving the survivor benefit. Now, the good news is that she can choose to wait. When you pass away, she’s not forced to take a reduced amount. She has the option of waiting until she gets to her FRA before turning on the survivor benefit. She wouldn’t want to wait beyond her FRA because nothing she does will make it bigger than what you were receiving. But something she does could make it smaller, such as claiming early.

Now, if she had her own benefit, she could claim that for a while, as she waits for your benefit to reach its maximum amount – which would be at her FRA – and then switch over to yours. Or, depending on the numbers, sometimes it’s the opposite that makes sense: claim the reduced survivor benefit first, let her own benefit grow until maybe age 70 and then switch over. Of course, It all depends on the actual amounts, but I haven’t been provided those amounts, so I can’t say.

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