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Does the age I start my Social Security retirement benefit affect the amount my spouse will collect when I die?

Yes, which is one reason the decision on when to file for your benefits is so important. 

If you claim Social Security at your full retirement age, or FRA (currently 66 and 2 months, gradually rising to 67 for people born in 1960 or later), you receive 100 percent of the benefit calculated from your earnings history. If you wait past FRA, you earn delayed retirement credits that will increase your eventual payment. That delay will also raise your spouse’s prospective survivor benefit, which is based on what you were drawing from Social Security.

On the other hand, if you file for Social Security before reaching full retirement age, your benefit will be reduced. For example, someone born in 1959 has an FRA of 66 years and 10 months. If they claim retirement benefits upon turning 62 in 2021, they'll get 70.8 percent of their full benefit.

In turn, if you file early, your surviving spouse might also receive a lower benefit. However, a Social Security rule limits how much their benefit can be lowered.

Under this provision, known as the “widow(er)’s limit,” the surviving spouse of a Social Security recipient who retired early is entitled to either the late spouse’s (reduced) monthly benefit at the time of death or 82.5 percent of the deceased’s full benefit, whichever is higher. This means your widow or widower cannot get less than 82.5 percent of your full benefit, even if you received less than that in life.

Keep in mind

  • All of the above is predicated on the surviving spouse being at or past full retirement age when he or she applies for survivor benefits. In almost all cases, filing before FRA will reduce the widow’s or widower’s benefit.
  • Full retirement age for survivor benefits is currently 66. It is also rising incrementally to 67, but at a different pace than FRA for retirement and spouse benefits.
  • Children and parents you were supporting can also receive survivor benefits on your record, although not the entire amount you were receiving.

Updated May 7, 2021

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