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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

Timing Of Social Security Spousal and Survivorship Benefits

A reader from Kansas asks a question from a client regarding Social Security and the claiming of benefits.


"I have a client who asked a Social Security question that I couldn't answer. Here are the facts: 1) The wife is 65½, newly retired and has not filed for Social Security yet, but is considering filing. 2) The husband is 64, still working and has not filed for Social Security yet. 3) The husband has made substantially more than the wife throughout their working years. If the wife were to file now instead of waiting until her FRA, and if the husband were to pass away prematurely before filing, would she be able to collect his full benefit?"


Every time this topic comes up, I'm not shocked that there are questions. This is a very confusing element because there's a distinct differentiation between spousal benefits – which you collect while your spouse is alive – and survivor benefits, sometimes called widow or widower benefits. Not enough people are aware of the difference.


As you said, the wife, who is only 65½, is considering filing, although she hasn't reached her Full Retirement Age (FRA). She would receive a reduced retirement benefit compared to what she would receive at her FRA.


I'll first answer what you didn't ask. Say the wife claims early, then she goes on to claim a spousal benefit under her husband's record once he has claimed. The reduction in her own retirement benefit would affect her spousal benefit because of the "deeming rule," where one is deemed to be filing one's own benefit before accessing a spousal benefit.


The spousal benefit calculation would start with her retirement benefit (reduced in this case by a pre-FRA filing) plus a "top off" of the difference between her FRA amount and one-half of her spouse's higher benefit if both reached FRA.


But that's not what you asked. You asked about the impact of the husband passing away. If he were to pass away, that would open the door not to spousal benefits but to survivor benefits. Survivor benefits are not affected by you claiming your own benefit early. Survivor benefits are set – and reduced if they're to be reduced – based on the day you file your survivor benefits.


So, let's say the husband died relatively soon, while the wife was still only 65½ and he was only 64. He clearly hadn't reached his FRA. Say she had already claimed her own retirement benefit before her own FRA. As a survivor, she would have access to collect his full FRA benefit, but only if she waits until she reaches her own FRA.


On another note: the FRA for survivor benefits and one's own retirement benefits can be different – up to a 2-year difference. I don't want to go down that path and complicate things unnecessarily, but I simply point that out.


But the simple answer to your question is "yes." The wife would have access to his full survivorship benefit even though she had filed for her retirement benefit early. The only caveat is if he died so young that she was still below her FRA, and she tried to switch to the survivor benefit immediately. In that case, she would be paid slightly less than she would otherwise because she would be claiming the survivor benefit early.


However, she's not too far away. The FRA for her survivor benefit is not older than 67, so she's really close now. She was probably born in 1957, so she's likely about a year away from the FRA for survivor benefits. She'll hit that earlier than she hits the FRA for her own retirement benefit. The chances that he passes away before that date are hopefully very, very slim – with him being only 64 at this point.


Don't worry that she would jeopardize her survivor benefit by claiming her own retirement benefit before her FRA. You didn't really ask, but I'm answering regardless: What she would be jeopardizing is the amount of the spousal benefit. Her early filing will permanently reduce that, although only slightly since, at 65½, she's so close to her FRA. It's not like she's claiming at 62, in which case she'd have a much more significant early-claiming reduction. The spousal benefit and her own retirement benefit would be forever reduced.


However, if her husband predeceases her, it's like pushing the reset button when she switches to the survivor benefit. She gets brand new claiming-age determinations for early claiming or not – and she's close to reaching the FRA anyway.


We covered a little more than you asked, but I wanted to make the extra distinction. This question usually comes up because people have heard of the permanent damage done to the spousal benefit by claiming your own benefit early. They mix up 'spousal' and 'survivor' like they're the same thing, and they're not. They're two different benefits with different rules.

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