If your spouse predeceases you, you may be eligible for social security survivor’s benefits based on your spouse’s work record. You may choose between benefits based on your own work record, or your spouse’s work record, whichever benefit amount is higher. As with party chips and salsa, you cannot double dip; in other words, you cannot receive both benefits at the same time.
You are typically eligible for survivor’s benefits if you are caring for a minor child under the age of sixteen, or if you have reached the age of 60 (this is different from the early retirement age for receiving benefits on your own work record, which is 62). The period of time between your minor child’s 16th birthday and your later 60th birthday is sometimes referred to in financial planning circles as the social security “blackout” period, meaning the period of time in which you cannot receive survivor’s benefits.
If your spouse was receiving social security benefits at the time he or she passed away, your maximum survivor’s benefit is usually the same amount as your spouse was receiving at the time of death.
If your spouse passed away before becoming eligible for retirement benefits, your maximum survivor’s benefit will generally be the amount your spouse would have received at full retirement age (currently age 66). If your spouse delayed claiming retirement benefits beyond his full retirement age and passed away before claiming benefits, the maximum amount of your survivor’s benefit is the amount your spouse would have received at the time of his or her death (remember, delayed retirement benefits grow at 8% per year from full retirement age until age 70).
Although, as mentioned above, you can begin receiving survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 (as compared to age 62 for early retirement on your own work record), your benefits will be reduced based on the number of months remaining until your full retirement age.
Although there is no double dipping of benefits, there are certain limited opportunities to “have your cake and eat it too” by coordinating benefits.
For example, you could take survivor’s benefits at age 60 and allow your own retirement benefits to grow until age 70, at which time you could switch to your own benefits. Or, if your own benefits are much smaller, you could take your own early retirement benefits at age 62, and switch to survivor’s benefits at your full retirement age (survivor’s benefits do not increase after full retirement age).
The decision on when and how to claim social security benefits is a function of a variety of individualized circumstances, including your health, family medical history, life expectancy, current and future cash flow needs and other factors.
You may wish to consult an experienced professional advisor in determining timing and coordination of benefits in your particular situation. (Disclaimer: the author of this blog is not a financial planner and blogs on those topics only in a general fashion, particularly as related to the subtopic of social security).
Hat tip to an article on kiplinger.com by Kimberly Lankford from March 2016 titled “Social Security Tips for Surviving Spouses.”
https://www.kiplinger.com/article/retirement/T051-C000-S002-social-security-for-surviving-spouses.html (visited September 10, 2016).
This material should not be construed as legal or financial advice for any particular fact situation, but is intended for general informational purposes only. For advice specific to any individual situation, an experienced attorney or financial advisor should be contacted.