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How to Maximize Social Security Survivor Benefits

Thousands of widows and widowers leave money on the table each year

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Not understanding all your social security survivor benefits can cost you thousands. Read below to learn how you can make sure you're getting all the benefits you deserve.

Here’s news: More than 11,000 widows and widowers who are now on Social Security could have had higher benefits if someone had bothered to tell them about their claiming options. That unhappy fact comes from the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General. It highlights how little people know about survivor benefits and what the choices are. Here are some tips:

Who gets survivor benefits?

They’re paid to the spouse of a worker who dies. You have to have been married for at least nine months, although there are exceptions — for example, if your spouse died in an accident. Qualified children get benefits, too, as do ex-spouses if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

What does the benefit pay? 

You get 100 percent of what your late spouse was receiving, provided that you file at your own full retirement age — 66 or 67. (Note that the survivor’s retirement age can be up to four months earlier than the age required for full retirement benefits.) Payments can start at age 60 (50 if you’re disabled), but filing before your full retirement age reduces your check. If your spouse dies before claiming benefits, your payments are calculated as if he or she had reached full retirement age, plus any deferred retirement credits. 

If you have a retirement benefit based on your own work, can you take a survivors benefit, too?

Here’s where many people miss out. You can’t take both benefits at the same time. But you can raise your lifetime income by taking them serially — something that your Social Security rep might not explain. If your future retirement benefit at 70 will be greater than your full survivor benefit, and you expect to have a normal life span, take the survivors benefit right away, says Bill Reichenstein of Switch to your own retirement benefit at age 70, when it will have had years to grow. Conversely, if your retirement benefit at 70 is the smaller one, take that benefit right away; switch to survivors benefits once you reach full retirement age. (Unlike retirement benefits, survivors benefits do not grow after you reach that milestone.) Very important: To use either switching strategy, you must restrict your initial application to the one benefit you want to start with. Otherwise, you may be considered as having applied for both retirement and survivor benefits at once and won’t be able to switch. 

What if you’ve been married twice? 

You generally collect on the account of your second spouse. If you remarried after you turned 60, you can collect on the account of the spouse with the higher benefit.

How do you collect? 

Notify Social Security as soon as your spouse dies. Benefits generally start from the time you apply, not the time your spouse died. If you’re currently collecting spousal benefits on a retired worker’s account and they’re low, you’ll probably be switched to the higher benefit automatically. But if you have a retirement benefit of your own, visit a Social Security office to sort out your options. 

Why is timing so important? 

Imagine Martha, turning 62, widow of George, who died at 63 without ever claiming Social Security benefits. Assume their benefits due at full retirement age (67) would be:

• Martha: $1,800/month
• George: $2,000/month 

Scenario 1: 

Martha files for retirement and survivors benefits at age 62.

Total benefits over 20 years:


Scenario 2:

Martha files for survivors benefits at 62, then retirement benefits at 70.

Total benefits over 20 years:






Jane Bryant Quinn is the author of How to Make Your Money Last.