social security survivor benefits

Social Security Survivor Benefits and How They Work

A Primer on the Benefits Available to You When Your Spouse Passes Away

Losing a spouse is an especially painful time. Unfortunately, many people find their grief compounded by the complexities of figuring out their finances. The process for collecting Social Security Survivor Benefits can be particularly confusing, but we hope this primer will help you wade through the confusion and better understand the benefits you may be eligible for.

Social Security Survivor Benefits in Brief

According to the Social Security Administration, survivor benefits are paid to widows, widowers, and dependents of eligible workers. If your spouse worked and paid into Social Security, some of the taxes they paid were for survivor benefits. Whether you are eligible to receive them when your spouse passes away is determined by whether your spouse paid into Social Security long enough to qualify for benefits.

Who is Eligible for Benefits and When?

If your spouse paid into Social Security long enough to qualify for benefits, you are eligible for a monthly survivor benefit, assuming you were married for at least nine months. This length of marriage requirement may be waived, however, if you are caring for a child of your deceased spouse who is under age 16.

You may choose to collect a Social Security Survivor Benefit as early as age 60, or age 50 if you are disabled. However, it is important to understand that, if you choose to begin collecting at age 60, you will only receive about 70 percent of the amount you would be eligible for at Full Retirement Age (FRA). For people born from 1945-1966, FRA is 66. It will gradually increase to 67 for those born in 1967 or later. Note that FRA qualification for survivor benefits uses a different date of birth table than the one used for qualifying for your own retirement benefits.

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The survivor benefit calculation is dependent upon whether you or your spouse had already begun receiving Social Security benefits. This is, ostensibly, how it works:

Couples who have not yet started collecting benefits can maximize their eventual survivor benefit by waiting until the highest earner of the two is 70 before applying for benefits. This will create a larger monthly benefit amount, which corresponds to a larger survivor benefit when the first spouse passes away.

In a scenario where you and your spouse have both already been claiming Social Security benefits, it’s the higher benefit amount that will become the survivor benefit. Simultaneously, the lower of the two benefits will stop altogether.

Now, if your deceased spouse (or ex-spouse) had begun receiving benefits but you had not yet done so, you’ll have some decisions to make about when you’ll claim your survivor benefit. It depends on the age at which you begin benefits, but this choice can often be made in a way that provides you with more lifetime income overall. Note that, if you have remarried, you cannot claim survivor benefits on your ex-spouse.

How Much Will Survivor Benefits Be?

When your spouse passes away and they were eligible for Social Security benefits, there are two types of payments you can receive from the Social Security Administration. The first is a one-time payment called a death benefit, which is $255 if you lived with your deceased spouse or, if living apart, you were already collecting certain benefits on your spouse’s record.

The more important benefit is the ongoing one. This monthly amount will be based on your spouse’s lifetime earnings and the Social Security benefit he or she was receiving or would have received. The higher their earnings, the higher your survivor benefit will be. Your Social Security record should indicate an estimate of your potential survivor benefit, but you can also use the below guidelines to assist you in estimating how much you may be eligible for on a monthly basis as a survivor:

When Neither of You Had Begun Receiving Benefits

If neither you nor your spouse had begun receiving your benefits, waiting until you reach your survivor FRA (likely 66 or 67) or older to apply for your survivor benefits means you will be eligible to receive 100 percent of your deceased spouse’s basic benefit amount. For example, if they were eligible to receive $1,650 per month once they reached their FRA, you will receive that same $1,650 if you wait to file until you reach your FRA.

Of note is the fact that survivor benefits include the application of delayed retirement credits. What this means is that, if your deceased spouse was already past their FRA and had not yet applied to receive benefits, it could result in a higher survivor benefit for you. Essentially, you will be eligible to receive what they would have received at that later age.

When You or Your Spouse Already Began Receiving Benefits, or You Are Caring for a Young Child

If both you and your spouse were already receiving your Social Security benefits and your spouse passes away, you will continue to receive the larger benefit amount, but not both amounts.

In the event your spouse had started receiving benefits but you had not, you’ll have the choice to collect your survivor benefit now, then switch to collecting your own benefit at age 70 if it will be a larger monthly amount.

Regardless of your age, caring for a child aged 16 or younger qualifies you to receive 75 percent of your deceased spouse’s benefit amount.

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Understanding Survivor Benefits for Ex-Spouses

If you are hoping to claim survivor benefits upon your ex-spouse’s passing, you’ll be eligible if you were married for at least ten years and you do not remarry prior to age 60. This is true even if your ex-spouse has remarried. The ten-year requirement is waived, however, if you are caring for your ex-spouse’s child and they are under age 16. In that case, the survivor benefit is typically calculated just as if you and your ex weren’t divorced.

A Note on Benefit Reductions

If you file for your survivor benefits between age 60 and your survivor FRA, your benefit amount will fall between 71.5 percent and 99 percent of your deceased spouse’s basic benefit amount. The amount is on a sliding scale that increases every month you get closer to your FRA.

It’s possible to lose some of your survivor benefits if you have not yet reached your FRA and you are still working. This happens when you exceed the Social Security earnings limit.

Choosing When to Claim Your Survivor Benefits

Deciding when to claim your survivor benefits is an individual decision. The advantage of taking it before you reach FRA is that you’ll be able to receive benefits for a longer period of time. Of course, waiting until you reach FRA means a greater monthly benefit amount.

Since your decision has a lifelong impact, you’ll want to consider it carefully. It may be wise to seek out the guidance of a financial advisor, who can help you walk through various scenarios. Losing a spouse is never easy, but making an informed decision about when to apply for your benefits can mean giving yourself the financial security you need for the next phase of your life.  Consult with a qualified investment, tax, legal, and/or retirement advisor before making any decisions.

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