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Social Security Filing Strategies for Surviving Spouses

Social Security Poster: old man

Social Security Poster: old man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a couple of strategies for Social Security filing that surviving spouses can use to maximize benefits throughout their lifetimes.  The important factor to keep in mind for the surviving spouse is that filing for Survivor Benefits (based on your late spouse’s record) has no impact on filing for Social Security benefits based on your own record – other than the fact that you cannot file for both benefits at the same time.

Coordinating these two benefits (Surviving Spouse benefits and your own benefits) can take a couple of different paths: you could file for the Surviving Spouse benefit first, allowing your own benefit to accrue Delay Credits up to as late as age 70; or you could file for your own benefit first, and then later file for the Surviving Spouse benefit.

Sue’s husband Steve passed away when Sue was 61 years of age.  Steve had just turned 70 and had just begun receiving his Social Security benefit, which was increased to the maximum amount since he waited until age 70 to begin receiving benefits.  His monthly benefit was $3,300, an increase of 32% over his Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) of $2,500.

Sue’s PIA is $1,500 – meaning that if she waits until her own Full Retirement Age (FRA) of 66 to begin receiving benefits, she will receive $1,500 per month based upon her own record.  Sue has a couple of strategies available to her:

  • She could start receiving the Survivor Benefit now at a reduced rate (since she is less than Full Retirement Age but over age 60) – for a total benefit amount of $2,481.  This is still much greater than her own benefit, so she would continue with this amount for her lifetime.  Annual COLAs would increase this amount when applied.
  • Sue could start her own retirement benefit when she reaches age 62 (one year from now).  At this point her benefit would be reduced from $1,500 to $1,125 per month since she’s filing before she reaches FRA of 66.  Then she could wait until she reaches age 66 and file for the Survivor Benefit – which would not be reduced since she’s now at FRA.  She would then receive the $3,300 monthly benefit, Steve’s maximized amount, for the rest of her life, increasing by COLAs when applied.

The first option provides Sue with the highest benefit right away, but she is giving up the future increased benefit that could be available if she waits to FRA.  The second strategy results in the greater benefit for her as long as she lives more than 10 years beyond her own FRA.

Now, if the amount of benefits were switched and Sue’s PIA was $2,500 while Steve’s was $1,500 – his benefit at age 70 would have been $1,980.  At Steve’s passing, Sue has the following options available:

  • She could start receiving the Survivor Benefit now at the reduced rate of $1,489, and then begin her own benefit at FRA, for the full amount of $2,500 (plus intervening years’ COLAs).
  • Or, Sue could start the Survivor Benefit now and wait until she reaches age 70, when her own benefit would have increased to $3,300 per month (plus COLAs).
  • Another option would be for Sue to delay receiving the Survivor Benefit until she reaches age 66 (FRA), at which point the Survivor Benefit would be $1,980 per month plus the COLAs.  Then she could wait to age 70 to begin her own benefit, again at the increased $3,300 plus COLAs.
  • The last sort of option available to Sue is to begin her own benefit at age 62 at a reduced rate of $1,875.  Since her own benefit is greater than the reduced Survivor Benefit, there are two ways that she might take the Survivor Benefit: 1) right away now at age 61 at a reduced rate of $1,489; or wait until FRA and take the maximized Survivor Benefit of $1,980.

The last option provides Sue with a relatively level benefit either right now (one year of $1,489 then increased to $1,875 for the rest of her life) or when she reaches age 62 next year ($1,875 for four years and then increased to $1,980 for the rest of her life).

In all cases where Sue intends to delay her own benefit, the Survivor Benefit options should be considered.  The key to it all is that either benefit can begin first, followed by the other later if it results in an increase in benefits.  Also important to note is that you can’t start Survivor Benefits early, switch to your own, and then switch back to Survivor benefits (or vice versa).  Once you’ve switched between the two types of benefits once, you are not allowed to switch again.

There are many other ways that the benefit amounts and ages could be worked out for examples, but hopefully these examples have helped to explain the decision process.

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  1. LK says:

    Hello Mr. Blankenship,
    I am getting conflicting info from social sec. website. Maybe you can clarify this for me. I am an ex-spouse and widow, married 10 years. He did not collect soc. sec. I am now 60 (almost 61). My wages were much higher than my ex’s. I am still working and make too much to actually take home any of the survivor benefit. Which is the best way to go:
    a: Do not claim survivor benefits until my income is much lower and then my survivor benefit will be increased each year I wait OR
    b: Claim the survivor benefit, knowing the benefit will be withheld but will come back to me in a larger payment when my income is much lower. I might not get back everything withheld depending on how much is added to my benefit before I collect on my own benefit.
    I would delay my own benefit until 70 if possible.
    Oh, a person at the soc sec office says they look to see which option gives you the biggest benefit and that is what you get, you don’t get to choose between survivor benefit or your own benefit. Yikes!
    Thanks for your help!

    1. jblankenship says:

      My recommendation is to wait until you are no longer earning more than the limit, or to your Full Retirement Age (whichever is sooner) to begin the survivor benefit. Then you can still delay filing for your own benefit until age 70 if you wish.

      My understanding is that the survivor benefit is not subject to the deemed filing rule (alluded to in your last paragraph) which requires you to take the largest available benefit when you file.

      1. LK says:

        I appreciate you getting back to me so quickly – a BIG Thankyou!!!

  2. Ruth says:

    I am 58. My husband was 58 when he passed away three years ago. His income over the years was much more than mine. I did not apply for any survivor benefits when he passed away, because I thought I wasn’t old enough to be eligible. Will I still be able to apply for surviving spouse benefits when I get older? (I don’t plan to retire till age 66, as that is “full-retirement age” for my state pension)

    1. jblankenship says:

      Ruth –

      You are not eligible for Survivor benefits until (at the earliest) your age 60. If you delay receiving the Survivor benefit until at least your age 66, you will have maximized that benefit. Since you mentioned that you have a state pension, you need to know that your Survivor benefit will likely be reduced by 2/3 of the pension that you receive from the state, and this reduction could result in eliminating your Survivor benefit altogether, depending upon the amount of the pension and the amount of the survivor benefit.

      Hope this helps –


  3. Ritch says:

    Hi Jim. Thanks for your response to my earlier question regarding the calculations and crossover point for the first example above.

    I’m likely missing something here, but ignoring the impact of COLA’s and running the numbers for Steve and Sue I’m getting a crossover point of slightly less than 116 months, which equates to 9.65 years beyond Sue’s FRA of 66.

    Specifically, if Sue starts drawing her $2,481/month Survivor Benefit now at age 61, at the end of the year she is 75 [15 years from today] she will have collected a total of $446,580 ($2,481 times 180 months equals $446,580).

    Conversely, if Sue waits a year and claims her own reduced SSB at age 62 and then later converts to Steve’s UNREDUCED Survivor Benefit at her FRA (age 66) she will have collected a total of $450,000 at the end of the year she turns 75 ($1,125 times 48 months [$54,000] plus $3,300 times 120 months [$396,000] equals $450,000).

    If correct, these calculations would indicate a crossover point of a little less than 10 years. Can you set me straight on where I’m going wrong in looking at this scenario?

    BTW, I’m NOT trying to “nitpick” your analysis here. One of the factors that sets your blog apart from others and makes its better IMO is the fact that you frequently do show the actual numbers associated with the hypothetical cases you illustrate. I believe this is extremely helpful for your readers.

    1. jblankenship says:

      Ritch, thanks once again for checking my work. I realize now that in the course of other work I stopped and quickly ran those numbers yesterday and came up with the 12-year figure – and the problem was that I started Sue off at age 60 instead of age 61, which she is at present. Using the correct age I agree with your numbers, that the crossover point is approximately 10 years from her FRA, or the year in which she reaches age 75.


  4. Jeff Bloom says:

    My mother is now 87. My father passed away 13 years ago when he was 76 and she 74. I just asked my mother and she does not remember whether she ever reapplied to get my father’s benefit after his death. His benefit was certainly higher than hers. ( Her current memory is not good) I think there is a chance she never did. apply for his benefits, unless they automatically coverted her to a higher amount.? Assuming that she has been just getting her own SS amount all these years, what can be done now?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Unfortunately if your mother didn’t apply for the survivor benefit at your father’s passing she can’t get retroactive benefits for the past years. The good news is that if she didn’t, she can file now and receive the increased benefits from this point forward. It’s definitely worth the call to SSA to find out for sure.


  5. mes53 says:

    Thank you very much for this excellent post. Clear and concise! Saving this for my files. There is very little information out there about surviving spouse strategies, especially when spouses were both under retirement age. So many articles about “spousal benefits” when both are living, but very little help available to widows. I am planning to file for my own benefit at 62 and switch to survivor benefit later. It seems ridiculous to not receive any benefit from all the years I contributed, and simply take the survivor benefit.

  6. Ritch says:

    Excellent post. Would you please share your computations for the following statement: “The second strategy results in the greater benefit for her as long as she lives more than about five years beyond her own FRA.” Thanks very much.

    1. jblankenship says:

      Thanks, Ritch.

      The statement was incorrect – when I went back to rerun the numbers I found that it was actually a much longer payback, of 12 years beyond her FRA. Thanks for speaking up, I’ve corrected the post.


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