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How does Social Security calculate the survivor benefit if my spouse dies before claiming Social Security?

If your spouse had not yet reached full retirement age, Social Security bases the survivor benefit on the deceased’s primary insurance amount — 100 percent of the benefit he or she would have been entitled to, based on lifetime earnings.

If the late worker had passed full retirement age — 66 and 4 months for people born in 1956 and gradually rising to 67 — the survivor benefit is based on what the deceased would have collected had he or she claimed benefits in the month of death. That means any delayed retirement credits the late spouse would have earned will count for the widow or widower. These credits boost benefits by two-thirds of 1 percent for each month the worker was past full retirement age. 

Say a wage earner with a full retirement age of 66 and 4 months never claimed benefits on his or her own earnings record and died in the month he or she turned 68. The surviving spouse’s benefit calculation would include 20 months of delayed retirement credits. This would increase the survivor benefit by 13.7 percent.

Keep in mind

  • A surviving spouse needs to be at full retirement age him- or herself to get 100 percent of whatever the late spouse was entitled to. If you claim survivor benefits before your full retirement age, the monthly payment will be between 71.5 percent and 99 percent of the deceased’s benefit.
  • Full retirement age for the purpose of survivor benefits is 66. It will also increase incrementally to 67, but at a different pace than for retirement benefits.

Updated March 7, 2022