After all of the changes that have been put in place for Social Security benefits in the past year, there is still one situation that allows for some planning. Knowing about this situation can help if you happen to be in the right circumstances.
If your spouse has passed away and you are due a Survivor Benefit, there may be a strategy for you to maximize benefits. This is because, of all types of Social Security benefits, the Survivor Benefit may still be filed for separately from the Retirement benefit based on your own record.
Why would you want to do this? Well, if your own Retirement benefit either is or will be larger than the Survivor Benefit, it might make sense for you to delay receiving your Retirement Benefit until later. In the meantime, if you’re at least age 60 and not earning more than the income limits, you may want to take advantage of the Survivor Benefit while you delay your Retirement Benefit.
Restricting the Survivor Benefit
For example, Marie’s husband Jake recently passed away. Jake was 66 years old, and had been receiving his own Social Security retirement benefit for a couple of years. His current benefit was $1,500 per month.
Marie is 64, and her own benefit will be $1,500 when she reaches Full Retirement Age (FRA) of 66. Marie is ready to retire from work, and she has two options available at this point:
1) She could file for all available benefits, which would result in a monthly benefit of approximately $1,352. If Jane does nothing more, that would be her benefit (basis) for the rest of her life, except for COLAs.
2) On the other hand, Marie could file for Survivor Benefits only, which would provide her with the same benefit as above, $1,352. But by restricting her application to the Survivor Benefit only, Marie has the option to later file for her own retirement benefit. If she only waits until her Full Retirement Age, Marie could step up her benefit amount to $1,500 per month upon reaching age 66.
Further, Marie could delay filing for her own benefit as long as possible, to age 70, and thereby maximize her retirement benefit to $1,980.
How it works
In the example above, Marie’s own retirement benefit at her age 64 is reduced to $1,300. The Survivor Benefit based on Jake’s record is reduced as well, but only to $1,352. When Marie files for benefits, if she makes no action to restrict her application, she is filing for (effectively) the largest possible benefit, considering all benefits that are available to her.
If Marie doesn’t restrict her application specifically to the Survivor Benefit alone, she has effectively filed for her own Retirement Benefit at the same time. This is because an application for any Social Security benefit is considered to be an application for all available benefits unless the application’s scope is restricted.
However, if Marie does restrict her application to the Survivor Benefit only, she preserves the option to later file for her own retirement benefit. Having restricted her application only to the Survivor Benefit, her own retirement benefit can continue to grow in value since she has not filed for it. Then later she can file for her own benefit – at any time when her own benefit is larger than the Survivor Benefit.
Note: It doesn’t matter if Marie and Jack were divorced, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. As a surviving divorced spouse, Marie would have the same options available to her as a widowed spouse.
How do you do this?
There are a couple of different ways to accomplish the restricted application for Survivor Benefits.
In the online application for benefits, there is a screen called Additional Benefits (ADDB), which has a question:
If claimant is filing as a surviving spouse, is the claimant filing for benefits on own record?
Answering “No” to this question will restrict your application to only the Survivor Benefit.
Another way to restrict the application is to include an unequivocal statement on your application such as:
I do not wish this application to be considered an application for retirement benefits on my own earning’s record.
I filed on <date> for all benefits for which I may be eligible except for retirement benefits on my own earnings record.
I wish to exclude retirement benefits on my own earnings record from the scope of this application.
If including a statement (instead of the online answer of “No”) it is important to NOT include qualifying phrases in your statement. Examples of such statements are “at this time” or any statement regarding planning to file for other benefits in the future. These qualifying statements will cause the statement to be rejected.