Social Security Benefits for Widows and Widowers

How much Social Security can a widow or widower get?

© The Balance 2018

The rules on collecting a Social Security widow benefit are complicated. The amount of benefits a surviving spouse can get depends on factors like their age, the age of the deceased, and whether the spouse who passed away had started their own benefits or not.

Who Is Eligible?

If you were married for 9 months or more to someone who has passed away, and they had worked long enough that at retirement they would receive their own Social Security (even if they had not started benefits yet), then you are eligible for a widow/widower benefit. The earliest age you can collect a Social Security widow/widower benefit is age 60. (If you are caring for a child of the deceased's who is under the age of 16, additional benefits may be available even if you have not reached age 60.) Note that this is different than most benefits where the earliest you can collect benefits is age 62.

Example: if you are 60, and your deceased spouse was 55 at the time of death, you would be eligible to receive a widow/widower benefit now, even though they had not started their own benefits.

How It Works

The outline below describes how the widow/widower benefit works and covers Social Security retirement benefits for a surviving spouse with no dependents. If you have dependents, child benefits may be available, and they work differently than the widow/widower benefits covered here.

The funeral home should alert Social Security of the person's passing but if they didn't, you can report the death by calling Social Security.

Social Security pays a one-time death benefit of $255 to the surviving spouse if he or she lived with the deceased or receiving certain Social Security benefits on the deceased's record.

How Much Can You Get? 

The amount of Social Security widow benefits that you can receive as a survivor depends on 4 things.

  1. The deceased spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA) which is the amount they would have received at their Full Retirement Age (FRA). (FRA varies by year of birth.)
  2. Whether the deceased spouse had begun collecting benefits.
  3. Whether the deceased spouse reached their FRA before their death.
  4. The age of the surviving spouse.

Let's take a look at how these factors impact the amount of the widow benefit. Pick the scenario below that applies to you or someone you know to see which set of rules applies.

If your deceased spouse had already begun benefits...

  • and had begun benefits before they reached their FRA, then you as the surviving spouse are entitled to the larger of what your deceased spouse was getting, or 82.5% of their PIA amount, (this is the amount they would have received had they begun benefits at their FRA). This benefit amount is subject to a reduction if you have not yet reached your FRA. (82.5% of their PIA will be more than what they would have gotten if they began benefits at age 62, so this rule is in place to protect a surviving spouse from a permanently lower income if their other half began benefits at age 62.)
  • and had begun benefits at their FRA or later, you as the surviving spouse are entitled to what your deceased spouse was getting, including any delayed retirement credits, subject to a reduction if you claim before reaching your FRA (or a surviving spouse could collect their own benefit, if larger).

Note 1: If you are also getting your own benefits, you get the larger of the widow/widower benefit or your own--not both.

Note 2: The schedule to determine your FRA is slightly different for retirement benefits than for widow/widower's benefits. 

Note 3: If you begin benefits before you attain FRA, and you continue to work, if your earnings exceed the Social Security earnings limit a portion of your benefits will be held back. Once you reach FRA this reduction no longer applies and your benefit will be recalculated to begin repaying the portion that was held back.

If your deceased spouse had not begun benefits...

  • and died prior to FRA, then as the widow(er) you are entitled to 100% of your deceased spouse’s PIA if you have reached your own FRA. The widow(er) benefit will be reduced if you begin benefits prior to your FRA. This means if your spouse passes at age 64 and had not started benefits yet, then as a widow/widower you can receive what they would have gotten at their age 66 (assuming 66 was their FRA, and assuming you have reached your own FRA). Most people born from 1943 to 1954 have an FRA of 66.
  • and died at FRA or older, then you as the surviving spouse are entitled to whatever they would have gotten at their date of death, including the application of any delayed retirement credits, subject to a reduction if you are not yet FRA.

The widow/widower benefit rules were put in place when it was more common to have a non-working spouse. The point of the rules was to make sure the system provided some income for a surviving spouse who may have no other source of retirement income.

As of 2017, for 71% of elderly single retirees, Social Security accounts for at least 50% of their retirement income and 43% of single retirees rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. (Source: Fact Sheet)

Social Security Widow Benefits For Ex-Spouses

If you were married to your ex for at least 10 years, and you did not remarry before you reached age 60, then you may also be eligible to collect a Social Security widow or widower's benefit on a deceased ex-spouse's record. Yes, you really can. Even if they had remarried.

Double Dipping, A Great Strategy

If you worked and will be eligible for your own Social Security benefit, one option you have as a widow or widower is to take a widow/widower’s benefit first, and later switch to your own benefit, or vice versa.

For example, a widow could have had these two options: (numbers are for example only)

  1. Take a widow benefit at age 60 of $18,180 a year, then at her age 70 switch to her own benefit and get $20,304.
  2. Or she could take her own benefit amount starting at her age 62 of $10,752 a year, and then at her age 66 switch to her widow’s benefit which would then be $24,480 a year.

Upon first glance, taking the money at her age 60 seemed like a good idea, but when we projected the total cash she would receive over her life expectancy, choosing option 2 will provide her more lifetime income (at least $30,000 more) and a more secure inflation-adjusted income at age 66 and beyond (assuming she lives to age 86 or later).

Before deciding when to begin your Social Security benefits you may want to use a Social Security calculator that can account for widow/widowers benefits, or consult with a retirement planner who offers advice on Social Security strategies. The right decision can mean more security for you during your retirement years.