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What are my options if I am eligible for both a Social Security retirement benefit and a survivor benefit?

You have a few options. Which you choose will likely depend on your age, the relative size of the payments and your short- and long-term financial needs.

Social Security allows you to claim both a retirement and a survivor benefit at the same time, but the two won't be added together to produce a bigger payment; you will receive the higher of the two amounts. You would be, in effect, simply claiming the bigger benefit. 

You also have the option of taking one benefit first and waiting until you are older to claim the other. For both retirement and survivor benefits, the payment amount rises if you wait past the minimum age to apply. 

If you have immediate financial needs and expect Social Security to play a major part in fulfilling them, taking the bigger benefit off the bat might make the most sense for you. But if you are in a financial position to do so, you could claim the smaller benefit first, so you have some Social Security money coming in, and wait to get the bigger benefit — the one you want to collect for the rest of your life.

Here’s how those benefits change with time:

  • Survivor: For most widows and widowers, the earliest age of eligibility for survivor benefits is 60 (50 if you are disabled). The portion of your late spouse’s Social Security that you can collect rises from 71.5 percent if you file at the minimum age to 100 percent at your full retirement age. (Full retirement age, or FRA, is currently 66 and gradually rising to 67 over the next several years). 
  • Retirement: You can claim reduced retirement benefits as early as 62; get 100 percent of the amount you’re entitled to from your earnings record at full retirement age; or wait until 70 and accrue delayed retirement credits that will push your payment even higher (up to 132 percent of your “full” benefit). 

Whichever benefit is bigger, once you claim it, that’s what you’ll get going forward. Whether it’s the survivor or the retirement benefit depends not just on your age when you file but on whether you or your late spouse was the higher earner during your respective working lives.

You can get estimates of the payments you might have in store by using AARP’s Social Security Benefits Calculator. Talking to a Social Security representative and, if possible, a financial adviser can help you determine which option best meets your needs.

Keep in mind

  • Retirement benefits increase if you wait past full retirement age to file, but survivor benefits do not. They are based on the Social Security benefit your late spouse was entitled to when he or she died and will not go beyond 100 percent of that.
  • If claimed before your FRA, both retirement and survivor benefits may be reduced further if you continue to work, as they are subject to Social Security’s earnings limit.

Published October 10, 2018

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