Social Security survivor benefits are something too many people ignore. Or at the very least, they don’t pay enough attention to them. Doing so can cost the surviving spouse tens of thousands of dollars in lost income.

I've seen so many people make Social Security claiming decisions without a thought about survivor benefits.


Read on to learn how to avoid costly mistakes for your surviving spouse.

The basics

Social Security retirement benefits are based on earnings.

In 2019, each time you earn $1,360 of wages, you gain one credit (or quarter). Once you've earned $5,440, you've earned 4 credits (4 quarters). To qualify for a retirement benefit, you must have accumulated 40 credits or 10 years of work under this formula. The 40 credits are the opening bid. Obviously, the number doesn’t reflect the income most people earn.

In 2019, you pay FICA (Social Security) taxes on your first $132,900 of earned income. Employers withhold 6.2% of income up to that level and an additional 1.45% for Medicare. There is no income cap on Medicare. They collect that tax on all earned income. Your employer pays the same percentages out of their pockets. The total employer/employee taxes come to 15.3% of the first $132,900 of income in 2019.

Benefit calculation

To calculate your benefit, SSA averages your highest 35 years of earnings to come up with an Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME) number. It's important to have an understanding of how this works. (Find more details here.)

Once they have that number, they apply three “bend points” to calculate your primary insurance amount (PIA). The PIA the amount you will get if you apply at your full retirement age (FRA). 

If you claim before FRA, your benefits get reduced. If you apply after FRA, your benefits earn delayed retirement credits.

Here's a table listing current FRA ages.

chart showing full retirement ages for social security

Costs of claiming early

According to the Center for Retirement Research, at Boston College, 42% of men and 48% of women claim their Social Security retirement at age 62, the soonest they can apply. The one exception to that age is for widows/widowers who can apply at age 60.

Claiming early can have a dramatic impact on your spouse's survivor benefits?

Let’s start with a chart showing the percentages of benefits at various claiming ages.

Chart showing early claiming

When you claim matters for survivor benefits

As you see from the chart, claiming earlier reduces your benefit. The same is true for determining survivor benefits.

Two primary factors determine your survivor benefits.

  1. The age at which the deceased spouse originally claimed their benefit (the original benefit)
  2. The age at which the widow claims their benefit (the actual benefit)

Let's discuss each one of these in turn.

Age when the deceased spouse claimed

If the deceased spouse claimed their benefit prior to reaching FRA, the survivor benefit will be reduced. The amount of reduction depends on the age at which the deceased spouse first claimed. The survivor benefit will be the higher of the deceased spouse's benefit or 82.5% of their PIA.

If they claimed at full retirement age (FRA), the benefit will be the decedent's primary insurance amount (PIA). If they claimed after FRA, the benefit includes delayed credits. Remember, delayed credits add 8% per year to the benefits from the full retirement age until reaching age 70. For someone with an FRA of age 66, that means a potential 32% increase if the deceased spouse waited until age 70 to claim.

An FRA of age 67 brings a potential 24% increase in benefit at age 70.

The widow's early claiming exception

Widows have an exception to the age 62 early starting date. They can apply for survivor benefits as soon as age 60. If she claims her survivor benefit at age 60, she will receive 71 1/2% of her husband's PIA. That's a big reduction!

However, if she waits until her FRA or later, she receives 100% of the original benefit.

Let's look at some examples to help clarify.

Case studies

Early claiming

John and Mary Sample are married. Both are baby boomers with an FRA of age 66. John has a PIA of $2,000. Mary's PIA is $1,200. 

John claims at age 62 giving him a benefit that's 75% of his PIA or $1,500. John dies. Mary's survivor benefit depends on when she claims.

If Mary claims at her FRA, her survivor benefit will be 82 1/2% of John's PIA or $1,650. Why not the $1,500 that John received? There's a special floor for survivor benefits of 82 1/2% of the deceased spouse's PIA.

However, if she claims at age 60 (earliest possible for surviving spouses), the benefit is 71 1/2% of his PIA or $1,430.

You can see the impact claiming early has on survivor benefits.

One spouse dies when both are receiving benefits

SSA gets this one right IMO. If both spouses are receiving benefits when one spouse dies, the SSA allows the survivor to switch to the higher of the two benefits.

Let's go back to John and Mary Sample.

We know John's benefit is $2,000. Mary's benefit is $1,200, much lower than John's.

John dies.

Mary notifies the SSA of John's death. They require Mary to complete form SSA -10. She must supply the proper documents (death certificate, proof of birth, proof of citizenship, etc.) to confirm their information.

Once SSA is satisfied, they will automatically switch Mary's benefit to the higher $2,000 benefit.

If you don’t know this or simply ignore it because you thought it didn't matter. You see how costly it could be.

Spouse delays claiming

John decides to wait to claim until age 70. Because he waited, his benefit is 132% of his $2.000 PIA or $2,640. That reflects the 32% increase from the delayed credits.

(A side note – that number doesn't include any potential increase from inflation. SSA uses an inflation rate of 2.6% in their calculations. That can make a huge difference over time.)

John dies at age 78.

If Mary decides to claim her benefit at age 60 (the earliest for widows) her benefit is 71 1/2% of $2,640 or $1,887.

That's higher than the example above when John claimed early and her survivor benefit was $1,430. That additional $457 in monthly income amounts to an additional $109,680 of she lives another 20 years.

That ain't chump change!

Here's how Mary can get an even bigger increase in her income. 

If she waits to claim survivor benefits until after she reaches her FRA of 66, she gets John's full $2,640 benefit for the rest of her life. That's a monthly difference of $1,210 or $14,500 annually. If Jane lives another 20 years, she receives an additional $290,400 in lifetime income!

Understanding this before you apply is so important?

Rules for Social Security survivor benefits

You must meet several qualifications to receive a survivor benefit on a spouse:

  • You must have been married at least 9 months at the date of death (except in case of an accident)
  • The survivor must be at least 60 for a reduced benefit (50 if disabled) or FRA for full benefit
  • A survivor benefit is not available if the widow(er) remarries before age 60 (or 50 for disabled survivor) unless that marriage ends

Divorced spouse survivor benefits

If you're divorced and your spouse dies, you may be eligible to receive a survivor benefit from your ex-spouse.

The rules are a little different. Here is how to qualify:

  • Divorced-spouse survivor benefits are available if the marriage lasted at least 10 years
  • You're at least 60 years old, or 50 if disabled
  • You haven't remarried before the age of 60
  • Your prior spouse has died and had contributed sufficiently to Social Security before his or her death

If you remarry after age 60, your divorced spousal survivor benefit will not be affected.

The same claiming rules apply to divorced survivor benefits as they do to a non-divorced spouse (reduction for early filing, delayed credits for waiting, paying out the higher of the 2 eligible benefits, etc.)

Unlike divorced spousal benefits from living ex-spouse's, you cannot get more than one survivor benefit from an ex-spouse.

If you have more than one ex-spouse that dies, you must notify the SSA.

They will pay you the higher of the two benefits.

[convertkit form=5111533]

Tips to maximize your benefit

To maximize your survivor benefit, you need to maximize your own retirement benefit.

Here are a few tips to help you do that.

  1. Check your earnings record – SSA gets your earnings record from your tax return. An earlier post shows how SSA uses your earnings to calculate your AIME, which determines your PIA. (How about those abbreviations!). If your earnings records are inaccurate or if years are missing, your PIA could be lower than it should. Go online to check your earnings. If they are off, you can submit documentation to get the record corrected.
  2. Consider working longer – Income in our later years is usually higher than earlier in our careers. Working in later years may help eliminate some years counted in your highest 35 where your income was lower. This is especially relevant for stay-at-home moms who went back to work after raising their children. Remember, if you have years of zero income in your highest 35, replacing them with earnings can have a big impact.
  3. Apply for your benefits at the optimal time – take into consideration your age, your income needs (now and in the future), and your life expectancy. This last point is one I want to emphasize. Planning for a shorter life expectancy by applying early will start your income earlier. But what happens if you live 5, 10, or 15 years or longer? If your plan was to spend down your money based on a shorter life expectancy and you outlive that time frame, where will you get the additional income? The optimal time calculation should include determining if you qualify for spousal benefits.

Final thoughts

Social Security is a great benefit that most of us paid into during our working years. According to almost any survey you choose to cite, Social Security retirement benefits represent the majority of an individual's or family's retirement income.

No matter your economic status or income level, getting Social Security right can add tens to hundreds of thousands of needed dollars to your retirement income. Knowing the rules before you file for your benefits will also help to maximize your Social Security survivor benefits.

Ignoring these truths can cost, not only you but your surviving spouse as well.

There are a number of calculators, both free and paid, that can help you run the numbers to find the best strategy. That's the best place to start.

Two that I have personally used in my financial planning practice are:

Maximize My Social Security and Social Security Solutions.

SSA also offers numerous calculators to help on their Benefits Planner: Calculators page.