Getting the Biggest Social Security Benefit Possible for Your Surviving Spouse

By Jonathan Peterson

Copyright © 2018 by AARP. All rights reserved.

If your main priority is to leave your spouse the biggest benefit possible, you just have to wait as long as possible (up to age 70) to claim your own retirement benefit. The survivor benefit that goes to your spouse after your death may be the same size as your own retirement benefit (if your spouse claims it when he or she has reached full retirement age).

In cases where a worker with a full retirement age of 66 claims benefits early, the rules provide a very slight cushion on behalf of the surviving spouse. That is because the benefit formula gives the widowed survivor the greater amount between the worker’s benefit at the time of death or 82.5 percent of the deceased worker’s full retirement amount. In this case, the worker’s benefit comes to 75 percent of his full retirement benefit, because he claims at age 62, leading to a 25 percent reduction due to his age. If his widow claims the survivor benefit at her full retirement age, she receives 82.5 percent of the deceased spouse’s full retirement benefit — slightly more than her husband was receiving when he was alive.

It’s worth keeping in mind that when a retired worker dies, the total amount of Social Security going to the household generally declines if the household had been receiving two benefits — one for the retired worker and one for the spouse. The size of the drop varies, and it’s true that expenses are less for one than for two. But the possible decrease in Social Security income faced by a widow or widower could be significant and is another reason that a worker may want to hold off claiming, in order to leave a larger survivor benefit.

Consider this example: When Duane retired as an insurance claims adjuster, he claimed a Social Security retirement benefit of $1,800 a month, and his wife Amber began to collect a spousal benefit of $900 a month. But when Duane passed away a few years later, Amber’s spousal benefit expired with him. The new Social Security benefit going to the house is a survivor benefit of $1,800 a month (based on Duane’s retirement benefit) — which is just 67 percent of the total that went to the house when Duane was alive.

Now suppose Amber had earned her own Social Security retirement benefit like a great many women today. Say she once earned as much as Duane but halted her career to stay at home with the kids, and she ended up with a Social Security retirement benefit of $1,600 a month. In their early years of retirement, the couple got a combined amount of $3,400 in Social Security each month (Duane’s $1,800 plus Amber’s $1,600). Upon Duane’s death, Amber continued to receive a survivor benefit equal to her late husband’s amount of $1,800 a month. But her own benefit of $1,600 disappeared, reducing the monthly income total by 47 percent. That is quite a cut. In fact, many people believe Social Security treats widows unfairly, and there have been calls for change. But those are the rules for now, and if you’re planning for the future, it’s good to know them.

There is a wrinkle in this example worth noting. Say Amber had reached her full retirement age at the time of Duane’s death but had not yet applied for any Social Security benefits. In such a case, she would have the option of restricting her application to the survivor benefit and leaving her own earned retirement benefit unclaimed. Through delayed retirement credits, her unclaimed benefit would increase at the rate of 8 percent per year until she reached 70. Say that is 3-1/2 years away. At an 8 percent increase of $128 a year (1,600 times 8 percent equals 128) she could eventually add $448 a month to her benefit by earning 3-1/2 years of delayed retirement credits (128 times 3.5 equals 448). Ultimately, that would get her a Social Security benefit of $2,048 (1,600 plus 448 equals 2,048), which beats the $1,800 she would otherwise receive.

Congress’s action to restrict marital claiming strategies did not focus on survivor benefits. If a surviving widow (or widower) has reached full retirement age and not claimed Social Security, she may still begin a survivor benefit, while leaving her own retirement benefit untouched, so it can increase for a later claim (up to age 70).

Often, when older couples collect Social Security benefits, they focus on the income they’ll get today. That’s certainly understandable, but statistics show that, in most marriages, a widow depends for years on her survivor benefit. The survivor benefit may be substantially larger than a spousal benefit because of the way the SSA calculates it. The survivor benefit can have a major impact on the surviving spouse’s standard of living for years to come.

A spouse who waits until 70 to begin collecting retirement benefits leaves the largest possible Social Security benefit to a surviving spouse. If the survivor earned a larger benefit based on his or her own earnings, the survivor gets that benefit. The survivor doesn’t get to claim both.