You will have to file an application to switch from survivor benefits on a late spouse’s work record to retirement benefits on your own record. You should apply four months before you want your retirement benefit to start.
You can file the application with a Social Security representative, either by telephone at 800-772-1213 or at your local office. If the latter, call the 800 number to schedule an appointment.
[Editor’s note: Local Social Security offices are currently closed to walk-in visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Social Security services are available online and by phone. If you have a "dire need situation" regarding your benefits or need to update information attached to your Social Security number, such as your name or citizenship status, you may be able to schedule an in-person appointment. See Social Security's coronavirus page or call your local office for more information.]
Switching makes sense if you earned more over the course of your working life than your late spouse, as your retirement payment would exceed the survivor benefit. But you may want to wait: You can maximize your benefits by continuing to receive survivor benefits and putting off claiming benefits on your own work record, as you can accrue delayed retirement credits that will increase your eventual monthly payment.
If you are the widow or widower of a spouse who consistently earned more money than you, it doesn’t really matter when you switch to your own retirement benefit. Social Security will pay the higher amount — and in this case, the survivor benefit would be higher than your own retirement benefit.
Keep in mind
If you are eligible for both survivor and retirement benefits, Social Security will pay your own retirement benefit first, then top it up to match the survivor benefit if that amount is higher.
Updated October 23, 2020
Find the answers to the most common Social Security questions such as when to claim, how to maximize your retirement benefits and more.