Social Security Survivor Benefits - My Wealth Advisor

Make the Most of Spousal and Survivor Benefits from Social Security

Even after the crackdown, special rules can pay off handsomely for husbands and wives as survivor benefits come into play.

Social Security smiles on married couples, with special rules that can richly reward husbands and wives. There are two kinds of benefits that a spouse can receive. One is a spousal benefit and the other is a survivor benefit. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in every state, the federal government announced that all same-sex married couples qualify for Social Security spousal and survivor benefits.

First, The Spousal Benefit

The Social Security taxes you pay earn a benefit not only for yourself but also, potentially, for your husband or wife. Even if your spouse never worked in a job covered by Social Security, for example, he or she would still be eligible for a benefit equal to as much as 50% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). That’s the amount you are due at full retirement age. The 50% factor applies if your spouse claims benefits at his or her full retirement age; if claimed earlier, the benefit is reduced. If your spouse worked in jobs covered in Social Security, he or she still might qualify for a spousal benefit. If a lower-earning spouse’s own benefit is less than 50% of the higher earner’s PIA, then a spousal supplement will be added to bring the payments up to the 50% level (or less if the lower-earning spouse claims benefits prior to full retirement age). Under the new rules, one earner must be claiming benefits (or must have filed and suspended prior to April 30, 2016) for his or her spouse to qualify for a spousal benefit. A spousal benefit can be claimed as early as age 62, but that will lead to a reduced benefit—to just 32.5% of the other spouse’s PIA. A spousal benefit is reduced by a certain amount for each month you claim the benefit before full retirement age. (To see how much your spousal benefit could be reduced, visit

To see the potential, consider this example: A worker’s primary insurance amount at FRA is $1,600, so the spousal benefit claimed at full retirement age would be $800 a month. If the worker’s spouse chooses to begin receiving benefits 36 months before FRA, Social Security would compute the reduction factor, based on 25/36th of 1% for each of the 36 months that benefits are claimed prior to FRA. That works out to 25%, so the $800 benefit is trimmed by 25%, putting the spousal benefit at $600. In this case, the benefit is 37.5% of the higher earner’s PIA. If the higher earner—say, the husband—has not yet claimed a benefit based on his work record, his wife can claim her own benefit. When the husband claims his benefit, his wife can “step up” to a higher spousal amount. However, the spousal benefit will be reduced if she started collecting her own retirement benefit before her full retirement age. Note: The spousal benefit is based on the higher earner’s primary insurance amount. If the higher earner delays taking benefits past 66 to take advantage of delayed retirement credits, the spousal benefit does not enjoy an increase. The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of the primary insurance amount, which is what the higher earner is due at FRA. Assume, for example, that a husband is eligible for a $2,000 monthly benefit at age 66, but decides to wait until age 70 by which time delayed-retirement credits will have pushed the benefit to $2,640, not including cost-of-living adjustments. If his wife applies for spousal benefits at 66, she’ll get $1,000 a month, 50% of her husband’s PIA.

The Survivor Benefit

A widow or widower is eligible for a survivor benefit starting at age 60 (or as early as age 50 if he or she has a qualifying disability or at any age, if caring for a child under age 16 or disabled who is receiving benefits). If you are eligible, you actually have a choice: You can either get survivor benefits or receive benefits based on your own work history. You can’t take both benefits at the same time, but you can take one type of benefit first and let the other grow, then switch to the higher payout later. How big a benefit? The size of the survivor benefit is based on two factors: the amount your spouse had been receiving (or would have received) when he or she died, and your age when you decide to take survivor benefits. If your spouse dies after claiming Social Security benefits, your maximum survivor benefit is the amount your spouse was receiving—whether he or she took reduced early benefits, full benefits, or benefits after full retirement age enhanced by delayed retirement credits. The longer your spouse waits to take benefits, the larger his or her own benefit will be and, thus, the bigger your survivor benefit. If your spouse dies before full retirement age and has not yet claimed Social Security benefits, the survivor benefit is based on the amount he or she would have received at full retirement age. If your spouse dies after full retirement age but before claiming benefits, your survivor payouts are based on the amount your spouse would have received at the time of death, including the impact of delayed retirement credits earned up until that time.

The second factor determining the size of the survivor benefit is when you choose to take it. You are eligible for the full amount your spouse was receiving if you take the survivor benefit at your full retirement age. For example, if your spouse had been receiving $1,000 per month, you can get a survivor benefit of $1,000 starting at your full retirement age. If you claim the benefit before full retirement age, it will be reduced. In this example, if you claim the benefit at age 62, your benefit would be $810 a month. Your survivor payouts may also be reduced by the earnings test if you take them before full retirement age and are still working. No double-dipping. If you qualify for benefits based on your own work history, you can coordinate the timing of the two benefits to maximize your payouts over the long term. For example, you can take survivor benefits any time after you turn 60 and let your own benefit grow to the maximum at age 70, then switch to your own benefit at that point, if it is higher. Or, if your own benefit is modest, you may want to start your benefit as early as age 62 and then switch to the survivor amount at full retirement age. (The survivor benefit does not continue to grow beyond full retirement age nor is it reduced if you claim your own benefit early.)

Making The Most Of Your Options

Preserving a higher survivor benefit for a lower earning spouse is a powerful reason for the higher earner to delay claiming benefits as long as possible. If, say, a higher-earning husband delays until 70, his widow will get about 32% more in survivor benefits than if he claimed at 66. For many couples, a wife should start collecting at age 62 and the husband wait until age 70, according to a study by Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. This assumes the husband will die first and leave an enhanced survivor benefit for the widow. As for the wife, even though her benefit will be reduced by 25% because she claims early, the authors figure that her reduced benefit is only temporary. After her husband dies, she will step up to the higher survivor benefit. When a spouse dies, the survivor has several options to maximize benefits. William Reichenstein, a professor at Baylor University, and his co-researchers have run multiple calculations to consider the outcome of various possibilities. One option is to start collecting a survivor benefit at perhaps 60 or 62. When you reach 66 or later, you can switch to your full benefit based on your earnings. Switching only makes sense if your own benefit is higher than the survivor benefit. Collecting the survivor benefit early may enable you to afford to postpone claiming your own benefit so it can accrue delayed-retirement credits.

Consider the case of Jack and Beth, who are both 62. Jack’s full benefit at 66 is $1,000, while Beth’s is $800. Neither is collecting benefits. Jack dies at 62, and Beth decides to claim a benefit. But should Beth claim a benefit based on her own earnings at 62 and later switch to a survivor benefit? Or should she claim a survivor benefit now, and perhaps claim her own benefit later? Let’s say she takes her own benefit now. Because she is claiming at 62, her monthly benefit would be reduced to $600. At 66, she switches to a monthly survivor benefit of $1,000. By age 84, which is her life expectancy, she would have received $181,125, according to Reichenstein. But, he says, Beth could boost her total lifetime benefits by reversing the order. If she claims a survivor benefit at 62, the $1,000 benefit would be reduced, to $810, because she is claiming early. At 70, she switches to a monthly benefit of $1,056 based on her own record (her $800 benefit plus 32% in delayed credits). Total benefits by age 84: $189,379. So, individuals who are eligible for benefits based on their own earnings and for survivor benefits might do better off by claiming a survivor benefit first and then switching to their own benefit at 70. Yes, the complications may seem maddening, but the potential payoff can be worth it.

About the Author Doug Finley

Douglas Finley, MS, CFP, AEP, CDFA founded Finley Wealth Advisors in February of 2006, as a Fiduciary Fee-Only Registered Investment Advisor, with the goal of creating a firm that eliminated the conflicts of interest inherent in the financial planner – advisor/client relationship. The firm specializes in wealth management for the middle-class millionaire.

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