Social Security Survivor Benefits for a Spouse

© The Balance 2018

The loss of a spouse is painful enough, and then you have to deal with the financial impact. The rules for collecting a Social Security widow benefit depend on a number of factors, but here’s a primer to help you unravel it all.

Who is Eligible for Survivor Benefits and at What Age?

Upon the death of a spouse, you are eligible for a monthly Social Security survivor benefit as long as you have been married for at least nine months. (This length of marriage requirement is waived if you are caring for a child of the deceased spouse who is under the age of 16.)

You can collect a Social Security survivor benefit as early as age 60 (or as early as 50 if you are disabled).  At age 60, however, will only receive about 70% of the amount you could get if you wait until your survivor Full Retirement Age (FRA). This is age 66 for people born in 1945-1956 and will gradually increase to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later.

Full retirement age, or FRA, to qualify for survivor benefits uses a different date of birth table than full retirement age to qualify for your retirement benefit.

Survivor Benefit Basics

The benefit calculation depends on whether you or your spouse had or had not started receiving benefits. Here are the basics on how it works:

For couples who have not started benefits yet—you can maximize the survivor benefit that is available by having the highest earner of the two wait until age 70 to begin Social Security benefits. It creates a larger monthly benefit amount that becomes the survivor benefit when the first spouse passes.

If you and your spouse had both already started claiming, the higher benefit amount becomes the survivor benefit, and the lower of the two benefit amounts will be stopped.

If your deceased spouse (or ex-spouse) had begun benefits, but you had not, you will have some choices to make about when you claim the survivor benefit. In many cases, this choice can be made in a way that is likely to give you more lifetime income. It depends on the age at which you begin benefits.

You cannot be remarried to claim benefits on a deceased ex-spouse. If you remarried after the death of your former spouse before you reach the age of 60 (or 50 if disabled), you will not be receiving those benefits.

How Much Can You Get?

First, Social Security pays a one-time death benefit of $255 if the surviving spouse lived with the deceased. More importantly, though, is the ongoing benefit. At a basic level, the monthly amount is dependent on the deceased’s lifetime earnings and the Social Security benefit he or she was receiving or would have received. The higher the earnings, the higher the benefit.

Each person’s Social Security statement provides an estimate of survivor’s benefits.

Below are some guidelines to use to help you estimate how much you may be eligible for as a survivor benefit.

Neither of You Had Started Benefits

If neither of you had started benefits yet, and you wait until your survivor FRA (likely at age 66 or 67) or older to apply for your widow/widower benefits, you will receive 100% of your deceased spouse’s basic benefit amount. It means if they were eligible to get $1,650 a month at their FRA, you would get $1,650 a month by waiting until your full retirement age to file. 

Survivor’s benefits include the effect of delayed retirement credits. It means if a deceased spouse was already past age 66 or 67 and had not started taking Social Security (they can delay until they're age 70), it may result in a higher survivor benefit for you than if they had filed earlier. You can get what they would have received at that later age.

Reductions to Benefits

If you file between age 60 and your survivor FRA, you will receive somewhere between 71.5% and 99% of your deceased spouse’s basic benefit amount. (The amount scales up for each month that you are closer to your full retirement age.)

If you collect a survivor benefit and you have not yet reached FRA, you can lose some of your benefits by working. It happens if your earnings are in excess of the earnings limit.

You or Your Spouse Had Started Benefits, or You Are Caring for a Young Child

Once you and your spouse are both receiving Social Security benefits, upon the death of your spouse, you will continue to receive the larger of your benefit—or your spouse’s—but not both.

If your spouse had started benefits, but you had not, you can choose to collect a survivor benefit now, then switch to your benefit at your age 70 if your benefit would be larger at that point.

At any age, if you are caring for a child younger than age 16, you will receive 75% of the deceased worker’s benefit amount.

Widow Benefits for Ex-Spouses

If you were married to your ex for at least 10 years, and you do not remarry before age 60, then you are eligible to collect a benefit when your ex dies, even if they have remarried. If you are caring for his or her child, and the child is under 16, the 10-year minimum is waived. Generally, the benefit is calculated just as it is for a spouse who isn’t divorced.

When Should You Claim a Survivor's Benefit?

The Widows, Widowers & Other Survivors page on the Social Security website says, "There are disadvantages and advantages to taking your survivors benefit before your full retirement age. The advantage is that you collect benefits for a longer period. The disadvantage is that your survivor’s benefit may be reduced."

Many of you will be eligible to collect a survivor benefit and by the time you reach age 70, you may want to switch to your retirement benefit if your own would be larger at that point.

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

  1. At 60, take a widow benefit of $18,180 a year, then at 70 switch to her own benefit of $20,304.
  2. At 62, take her own benefit of $10,752 a year, then at 66 switch to her widow’s benefit of $24,480 a year.

At first glance, taking the money at 60 might seem like a good idea, but 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).

Whatever decision she makes, it has a lifelong impact.

If your goal is to minimize longevity risk, which is the risk of outliving your money, you will want to consider a strategy that gives you the most lifetime income.

Sometimes that means not starting benefits right away, even if you are eligible for them. If you waited until 66 or 67 and get more, then if you live longer than average life expectancy, this will result in providing you with a higher total payout from Social Security over your lifetime.

Documents You Need to Claim a Social Security Survivor Benefit

When you apply for Social Security survivor benefits you will need to take the following documents with you:

  • Proof of death—either from a funeral home or death certificate;
  • Your Social Security number, as well as the deceased workers;
  • Your birth certificate;
  • Your marriage certificate, if you are a widow or widower;
  • Dependent children’s Social Security numbers, if available, and birth certificates;
  • Deceased worker’s W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year; and
  • The name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be deposited directly into your account.

The Bottom Line

In 2019, 6 million survivors received $7 billion in benefits in one month alone. Seventy percent of single elderly retirees, meanwhile, get at least half of their income from Social Security. If you’ve lost a spouse and are ready to look at your finances, consider using a Social Security calculator that can account for widow benefits. An informed decision can mean more financial security as you navigate the next phase of your life.