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Interaction of Survivor Benefits with Your Own Benefits

interactionSocial Security Survivor Benefits can be a critical lifeline for surviving spouses. The interaction of survivor benefits with your own benefits can be a bit confusing though. Does starting to receive one benefit affect your future amount of the other benefit? How about vice-versa? There’s a lot written about the topic in Social Security’s POMS manual, but it becomes very simple after you study it a bit.

The interaction of survivor benefits with your own benefits can be played out in one of two ways: either you take your own benefit first and the survivor benefit later; or vice versa, taking the survivor benefit first followed by your own benefit. We’ll look at each of these methods and review the interaction of survivor benefits with your own benefits.

Note: in our examples, we are assuming that the survivor benefit has been calculated correctly per the late spouse’s circumstances. See How is the Social Security Survivor Benefit Calculated? for more details on the calculations. It’s also important to understand that there is a difference between Survivor Benefits and Spousal Benefits. Survivor Benefits are only available once your spouse has passed away, while Spousal Benefits are only available during his or her lifetime.

Survivor Benefits First

In this case, you will be filing for your survivor benefit first, and then filing for your own benefit at some point in the future. You might do this if you’re under FRA when you become eligible for the survivor benefit and wish to delay filing for your own benefit until later. Or you want to delay your own benefit until it’s maximized at your age 70. Generally speaking, the only way this would make sense is if your survivor benefit is something less than what your own future benefit can be.

Filing for your Survivor Benefit has zero impact on your own benefit in the future. Receipt of the Survivor Benefit in prior years (from filing for your own benefit) isn’t even noted when you file for your own benefit later.

For example, Robin, a widow age 62, has a survivor benefit coming to her that would amount to $1,000 at her present age. Her own benefit will be $1,500 when she reaches FRA (at age 66 and 4 months), or it could grow to $1,950 if she waits until she reaches age 70.

Robin can take the survivor benefit right away and collect $1,000 per month for the next several years, and then file for her own benefit (at any point). There will be no reduction to her own benefit from her “early” filing for the survivor benefit.

Own Benefits First

This is the reverse of the above situation: you are filing for your own benefit first, and then later filing for the survivor benefit. This occurs when the survivor benefit will be something more than your own benefit – and of course the amount would be maximized when you reach FRA. In the meantime you are collecting your own benefit until you decide to file for the survivor benefit.

Jack is a surviving widower, age 63. He has a benefit based on his own record that will pay him $900 per month now, at his current age. He also has a survivor’s benefit that will pay him $1,200 per month if he waits until FRA to file for the survivor benefit.

When Jack files for his own benefit, it is reduced from the amount that could be paid to him if he waits until FRA, a total reduction of $225 (his FRA amount would be $1,125). When he later files for the survivor benefit, SSA does a calculation to determine the amount of benefit he will receive:

The reduced retirement benefit is subtracted from the total survivor benefit. That difference will become the survivor portion of the benefit, and the individual will also continue to receive his or her own benefit. The two are added together.

So in Jack’s case, the survivor portion of his benefit will be $1,200 minus $900 ($300). So Jack will receive one check each month in the amount of $1,200, which is made up of his own benefit ($900) plus the survivor portion ($300).

The bottom line

The bottom line is this: in either case, starting one benefit early has zero impact on starting the other benefit at a later date. So – if you find yourself in a position where you’re widowed and eligible by age for your own benefit and a survivor benefit you should definitely look into starting one or the other benefit. It’s likely that if you don’t do this, you’ll be leaving money behind that you should have received.

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