• Chris Stein, CFP®

Social Security Survivor Benefits and Delayed Benefits

A reader from Kentucky wonders if he can claim a Social Security survivor benefit while delaying his own benefit to age 70.


“I have two wives who have died. I am 68. Can I suspend my Social Security retirement benefit to let it grow 8% a year until I reach age 70? And as this is happening, can I collect widower benefits under my higher-earning deceased wife? Then, at 70, collect my own benefits again, but in their increased amount?”


We often mention that the pool of funds at Social Security for your retirement benefit (as well as spousal and auxiliary benefits) is separate from the pool of funds for widow/widower benefits. These are usually called survivor benefits.


That fact allows you to select which pool you draw from when you have eligibility to claim out of either pool, leaving the other claim untriggered. And there are specific strategies where you can take advantage of that fact and claim one and then later claim the other.


But your case has a problem. Once you have claimed your benefit, suspending the benefit doesn’t change the fact that your benefit is claimed. People envision it as if they’ve “stopped” their claim. And they haven’t.


From what I understand, you have started your benefit and would like to suspend it. You are past your Full Retirement Age, so you have the right to suspend. Your thought is that you will trigger your widower benefit. Then, when you turn your benefit back on later, Social Security will give you the delayed retirement credits earned during that time of suspension.


The problem is that you’re still technically considered to be collecting during the suspension. Social Security is just not sending you the money. It’s more like you’ve pressed the pause button. Instead of stopping your benefit, it’s still being “paid” to you in the background, and they’re simply withholding the payment. And then, when you turn it back on, they’re going to say, “Well, if you’ll let us keep what we held in pause, we’ll give you delayed retirement credits instead.”


The result is your inability to collect a widow/widower benefit while your original claim is in suspension. They’ll pay you one or the other. You can switch from one to another, but if the widow benefit is higher than your own benefit, they’ll pay you that since you’ll have switched. You won’t be in suspension anymore, and you won’t get the delayed retirement credits.


So it’s a bummer of a rule – and it can happen. On the other hand, if you know before claiming that you have access to both pools – the survivor benefit and your own benefit -- then you can play this strategy game of “which one should I claim first and when should I switch to the other one?”


In short, once you claim your own benefit, you’ve painted yourself into a corner. You can switch later, but that switching mechanism doesn’t allow your benefit to grow in the background until you turn it back on.


The only exception is if it has been less than one year since you claimed your benefit. If so, you could withdraw your application, and your strategy would work. You would have to pay back all the benefits you have received, then choose the survivor benefit.


At that point, the system will treat you as if you had never claimed your own benefit in the first place, and you could accrue the delayed retirement credits until you switch to your own.


If you were to pursue this strategy, you could make a retroactive application for your survivor benefit to replace a bit of the money you lost paying back your own retirement benefits. You would have to crunch the numbers to see if this makes financial sense, but it is one option. Otherwise – unfortunately – the strategy you propose will not work.

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