Getting Your Financial Ducks In A Row Rotating Header Image

Survivor Benefits Do Not Affect Your Own Benefits (and vice versa)

survivorI’ve had a few questions about this topic over the years, so I thought I’d run through a few examples and explain it.

When you eligible for a Social Security Survivor Benefit and a Social Security retirement benefit based on your earnings, you can maximize your lifetime benefits by coordinating the two and planning out your strategy for taking each benefit.

As we’ve covered in other articles, it often is best to delay receiving your own benefit as long as possible. This is because you will receive Delayed Retirement Credits (DRCs) for every month after you’ve reached your Full Retirement Age (FRA, which is age 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954, and increasing gradually up to age 67 if you were born in 1955 or later).  This DRC amounts to 8% per year, or 2/3% per month.

In addition, it can be beneficial to delay receiving a Survivor benefit past the earliest age it is available (age 60, or age 50 if permanently disabled) as this benefit can be reduced to as little as 71.5% of it’s potential amount if started early.

Plus – this is the really important point to note – neither benefit has an impact on the other.  I’ll illustrate this below in a couple of examples.

Survivor Benefit is Less Than Own Benefit

John, age 60, just lost his wife Priscilla at her age 66. Priscilla had just started receiving her Social Security benefit in the amount of $1,000 per month. John has a PIA of $2,000 per month available to him – meaning he will receive $2,000 at his FRA, age 66. He could otherwise file early to begin receiving his own benefit at age 62, in the amount of $1,500 due to the early start reduction.

Since John is 60 years old, he is eligible to receive a Survivor Benefit based upon Priscilla’s record. John could receive $715 per month in Survivor benefits beginning right now, and continue to receive this amount until he decides to draw benefits based on his own record. So this means John could receive this amount for 6 years, and then file for his own benefit at the $2,000 per month level. Using the delay option, he could wait while receiving the Survivor Benefit for up to 10 years, and then file for his own benefit at age 70, for the DRC-enhanced amount of $2,640 (32% increase for 4 years of delay).

It’s important to note that John isn’t required to begin receiving the Survivor Benefit at age 60, he could delay to age 62 (for example) and then the benefit would be approximately $810 per month. If he waits until he is age 66, the Survivor Benefit would be $1,000.

Survivor Benefit is Greater Than Own Benefit

Lucy, age 58, just lost her husband David, who was 65. David had not begun to receive his Social Security benefits as of his date of death. Had he lived to age 66 (his FRA) he would have been eligible for a Social Security benefit of $1,800 per month. Lucy is due to receive a Social Security benefit of $1,500 per month at her age 66.

When Lucy reaches age 60 she has a choice: if she files for the Survivor Benefit, it will be reduced to $1,287 per month (71.5% of David’s full benefit of $1,800). She could receive this amount until she decides to file for her own benefit ($1,500) at a later date. On the other hand, if she waits until she is age 62, she could receive her own benefit in the amount of approximately $1,113, due to the reduction factors. She could receive that amount until she reaches age 66, at which point she could begin receiving the Survivor Benefit at the maximum rate, or $1,800.

Going back to the first hand, Lucy could file for the Survivor Benefit right away at age 60, receiving $1,287 per month, and then wait to age 70 to file for her own benefit. This would give her the maximum benefit based on her own record, of $1,960, greater than the maximized benefit from David’s record. If she has the resources, she could wait until age 66 and file for the Survivor Benefit at the $1,800 rate and then at age 70 file for her own benefit at $1,960.

Because taking one type of benefit or the other has no impact on the other benefit, she can choose which strategy works best for her own situation. She cannot, however, file for one benefit, switch to the other, and then switch back. The switching between benefits can only be done once.

Hope this helps to clear up some of the confusion around these benefits.


  1. David M Sutton says:

    Is it different for the widow of a spouse on social security disability? The husband was eligible for “normal” SS, but was collecting SS disability due to illness. Would his widow’s survivor benefit be based on his disability payments, or on whatever “normal” SS that he would have been eligible for? Also – he turned 65 the month he died, if that makes a difference. Thanks.

    1. jblankenship says:

      The widow’s benefit is based on the deceased person’s primary insurance amount, not the disability benefit. So (from your example) since he had not started receiving his retirement benefit, the widow’s benefit will be equal to the PIA, reduced if she starts receiving it earlier than her full retirement age.

  2. Douglas Johnston says:

    Taking one type of benefit or the other has no impact on the other benefit. Can we conclude that the statement also means that a spouse may take a worker or spousal reduced benefit early without impacting the amount of a survivor benefit for which that surviving spouse may later be eligible. Specifically, that, although a worker or spousal benefit is reduced by filing before FRA, and further although a survivor benefit is reduced if claimed before 66, nonetheless, a survivor benefit is not reduced by the fact that the spouse dies, the survivor is receiving reduced worker or spousal benefits which may have begun as early as 62.

    1. jblankenship says:

      Yes, that’s correct. No matter when the worker or spousal benefit is taken (early, late, or on time) it has no effect on the survivor benefit that that same individual may receive at some point in the future. Conversely, no matter when the survivor benefit is taken, it has no effect on the worker benefit that that same individual may receive in the future (spousal benefits are not available after the death of the other spouse, these are replaced by the survivor benefit).

      Naturally, only one or the other type can be taken at one time – worker/spousal or survivor.


Get involved!

Discover more from Getting Your Financial Ducks In A Row

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading