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Social Security Survivor Benefit Coordination

coordinatingIf you’re a widow or widower and you are eligible for Social Security Survivor’s Benefits based on your late spouse’s record, you may have some timing decisions to make that could significantly affect your overall benefits. This is especially true if you are also eligible for Social Security benefits based on your own earnings record.

Timing the receipt of benefits is, as with most all Social Security benefits, the primary factor that you can control.  If you have worked over your lifetime and you have a significant benefit based on your own earnings, it becomes even more important. The decision process is dependent upon the relative size of your own Social Security benefit as compared to the Survivor Benefit based on your late spouse’s record.

Own SS Benefit Greater than Survivor Benefit  If your own benefit will be greater than the Survivor Benefit, it could be beneficial to you in the long run to take the Survivor Benefit as early as possible (as early as age 60) even though it will be reduced.  You could then continue receiving this reduced benefit for several years to your FRA (or even to age 70) and then switch over to your own benefit, which will be higher and unreduced at that point.

Survivor Benefit Greater than Own Benefit  If the Survivor Benefit is the larger of the two, you could take your own benefit early (reduced, of course) and then switch over to the Survivor Benefit later, at FRA. It doesn’t pay to delay the Survivor Benefit to a date later than your Full Retirement Age – the Survivor Benefit will not increase after that age.

By using one of these methods you are able to receive *some* benefit earlier-on in your life, and then switch over to the higher benefit later.  Just keep in mind that earnings limits and other reductions will apply.  Also, these same options are available for ex-spouse widows and widowers as well, as long as you haven’t remarried prior to age 60.


  1. Earl says:

    Hi Jim- Thanks for your always informative articles. I’ve been looking through your articles on survivor benefits, but haven’t found the answer to this question.

    My brother waited until last September when he turned 70 to file for benefits. He passed away in March. My sister-in-law reached FRA/66 on June 6th, and on June 13th had her long-awaited meeting with her local SS office to file for benefits. Her own benefits would have been ~ $1500. My brother’s benefit was ~$1300. She’d already decided to let her benefit grow until she reaches 70 and file for survivor benefits. The SS representative told her she could let her benefit grow, but her survivor benefit would be reduced by the credits my brother had earned waiting until age 70, placing her survivor benefit at ~$950. She and I were both surprised that she wasn’t entitled to a survivor benefit equal to that he’d waited until age 70 to earn. Is that scenario correct, or did the SS representative make a mistake in reducing it to hes FRA/66 level?

    1. jblankenship says:

      To the best of my knowledge, she should be eligible for the actual benefit that he’d been receiving, not reduced by the delay credits. I suggest that she talks to a supervisor or another representative. This should be a straightforward case – unless there is another factor in play, such as a government pension that your sister-in-law is receiving based on her own work.

      1. Earl says:

        Thanks, Jim, It sounds like she has a reason to appeal. Best regards!

  2. Janice McIntyre says:

    I have just turned 60 and looking into survivor benefits from my deceased husband. I have income of around $29,000 year. I am told I am only allowed $15,000 income to be eligible for survivor benefits. Is this correct? I have to be at basically poverty level in order to receive benefits? My husband passed in 2009 and was not recieving his benefits. He was still working and we were financially comfortable. Now I struggle to make ends meet. I have found your writings interesting and hoped you could shed some light on this for me.
    Thank you

    1. Janice says:

      just found the answer . thanks

      1. jblankenship says:

        Ok – glad to know you found your answer. Let me know if you have other questions.

  3. kathy says:

    Hello…My husband died in 2015 and was collecting his SS…He was 70. I am 62 still working full time and make more than he did. If I retire early can I still take the death benefit and put mine on hold until I’m 70? So much has changed. Thank you!

    1. jblankenship says:

      Yes, you should be able to do just as you describe.

  4. Peggy says:

    I waited for over an hour to talk with social security on the phone. She told me that I had to take the higher benefit when I applied and that I could not take the other one later. I was born in 52 so I don’t think the recent legislation affects me, a widow. Is she wrong? I made an appointment in my local office, and I’m wondering what they are going to say. What should I do if they won’t let me take my reduced benefit now and let my deceased spouse’s benefit grow until my FRA?

    1. jblankenship says:

      You should be able to restrict your application to Survivor Benefits, as I believe deemed filing does not apply to the Survivor benefit.

  5. mes53 says:

    I am a widow who recently applied for my retirement benefits (to start at 62) and plan to switch to my survivor benefit at age 66. Thanks to the great knowledge I have obtained by reading your column, as well as your book, I am assured I am doing the best plan. However, I had to argue with the representative from SS about why I was taking my benefit then switching to the survivor benefit. She kept insisting I should take the “larger” benefit now. Imagine how many people make the wrong decision based on what they are told? Thanks for all your great info. Everyone should do their own research as well, before they apply for benefits!

    1. jblankenship says:

      I’m so happy to hear that you had the knowledge (and the gumption!) to stand firm and make the right choice for you. At the same time, I’m saddened to hear that you actually had to argue with the rep about it.

      I’m sure that there are plenty of folks who are “talked into” the wrong decision for them. We’ll keep spreading the word!


  6. Anne says:

    “Reall Interesting”;…thanks Jim! Happy Memorial Day to all “! Anne CT USAy

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