The Social Security Strategy Every Widow or Widower Needs to Know

Claiming your Social Security retirement benefits as early as possible isn’t recommended for most people. But in some cases it’s actually the most optimal way to maximize your benefits from the program.

One such case is if you’re eligible for survivor benefits. Survivor benefits are offered to widows and widowers, conveying up to 100% of a deceased spouse’s benefits. A survivor can get more out of the Social Security program by claiming one of their benefits as early as possible and then switching to the other benefit when it reaches its maximum value.

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How survivor benefits work

Survivor benefits are offered to widows and widowers who were married to the deceased at the time of their passing. You may also be eligible for survivor benefits if you were married at least 10 years before divorcing and remain unmarried. You’d also be eligible if you were married at least 10 years and you were over 60 years old when you remarried.

The amount of Social Security benefits the survivor is eligible for depends on the age of the deceased and whether they’ve already filed for Social Security.

Filing Status Age Benefit
Unfiled Before full retirement age 100% of benefits at full retirement
Unfiled After full retirement age Benefit as if they filed on the day of death
Filed Any The benefit they filed for with a floor of 82.5% of full retirement age benefits

Table by author. Data source: Social Security Administration.

A survivor will receive 100% of the eligible benefit by waiting until their own full retirement age. However, they can claim as early as 60, which will reduce the benefit by 28.5%. There’s no gain to delaying a survivor benefit beyond full retirement age.

If the survivor also becomes eligible for their own Social Security benefit, they can switch to their own benefit at any time. That opens the door to claim one benefit early while delaying the other. Here’s how.

Claiming the survivor benefit first

Let’s say you’re eligible for a survivor benefit of $1,800 per month at full retirement age (67) and your own Social Security benefit is $1,500 per month at full retirement age.

If you delayed your own Social Security benefits until age 70, you’d be eligible to receive $1,860 per month, which is more than the $1,800 benefit for claiming the survivor benefits at 67.

Claiming the survivor benefit at age 60 will give you $1,287 per month until age 70, when you can switch to the bigger personal benefit. While you’ll have a few years when switching to your personal benefit will increase your payment, you’ll likely maximize your total payments by delaying as long as possible.

The chart below illustrates how claiming survivor benefits early and then switching compares to the reverse strategy. As you can see, you’ll end up with significantly more benefits by claiming the survivor benefit first.

Chart by author. Calculations by author.

Claiming your own benefit first

Claiming the survivor benefit first isn’t always the best choice. If the survivor benefit is substantially higher than your own benefit, it’s probably worth delaying it until your own full retirement age. In the meantime, you can claim your own benefit early at age 62.

For example, if your benefit at full retirement age is $1,500 per month and your survivor benefit is $2,250 per month, you’d do well to claim your own benefit first. If your full retirement age is 67, you’ll receive $1,050 per month starting at age 62, and then be eligible to switch to the bigger survivor benefit at age 67.

The chart below shows that the break-even point for cumulative payments is age 79 1/2. Most retirees should plan to live well into their 80s, if not beyond, so it makes sense to delay the survivor benefits in this case.

Chart by author. Calculations by author.

Know what’s available to you

It’s important to know if you’re eligible to claim Social Security survivor benefits. (The eligibility is actually broader than what’s laid out in this article.) It’s also important to know that you don’t have to claim your survivor benefits at the same time as your personal retirement benefits. Doing so could be a major mistake, as you’ll miss out on the opportunity to delay benefits and get a bigger monthly check later.

Be sure to review your options and see how different claiming strategies will affect your payments. But this is certainly one case where claiming early will maximize your benefits.

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