How Long Must I Wait for My Full Social Security Survivor’s Benefit?

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This week’s question comes from Alicia:

“What percentage would I receive of my husband’s benefit at age 63 if my husband were to die? I have no work record of my own and draw a spousal benefit now. He worked until age 70 to maximize his benefit (and mine). I thought I read somewhere that I would get 80%. Is that correct? Would it increase 5%-7% every year I wait to claim? Would I be better off to live on savings and wait until age 66 (my full retirement age) to collect?”

How it pays to wait

Alicia: If your husband passed away, then his waiting until 70 to claim his benefit will mean that you will receive a larger survivor’s benefit. But you will have to wait until 66 if you want to receive the full amount for the rest of your life.

To understand all the aspects of this situation, let’s go through a numerical example. Suppose your husband’s benefit would have been $1,000 if he had claimed at his full retirement age (FRA) of 66, and your spousal benefit is $375 because you took a reduced spousal benefit at 62. Because your husband waited until 70 to claim his benefit, his benefit is now $1,320 — 32% higher than if he had claimed at 66.

Whenever your husband dies, you will lose your spousal benefits. If you are past your FRA, you should immediately claim survivor’s benefits — $1,320 in this example — since they do not increase beyond your FRA.

However, if you have not reached your FRA, you have a choice. You can switch to survivor’s benefits immediately. However, you would face an early claiming penalty. At age 63, that penalty would be about 14%, so you would receive about $1,135.

Alternatively, you could delay claiming your survivor’s benefits until your FRA, or even a little before then. The problem here is that you will have no Social Security benefits while you wait to claim survivor’s benefits. If you are in good health and can afford to live off savings for three years, it may make sense to delay claiming survivor’s benefits until your FRA.

Every month you wait to claim, your survivor’s benefit will go up until you reach 66. It does not pay to wait beyond your 66th birthday, because the benefit will not go up after that. One oddity is that you will receive your full survivor’s benefit at 66, even though someone like yourself — who was born in 1956 — has an FRA of 66 plus 4 months for retirement or spousal benefits.

This is just one of the ways that Social Security is more generous to widow(er)s than to other retirement beneficiaries.

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About me

I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. In 2009, I co-founded, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

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Disclaimer: We strive to provide accurate information with regard to the subject matter covered. It is offered with the understanding that we are not offering legal, accounting, investment or other professional advice or services, and that the SSA alone makes all final determinations on your eligibility for benefits and the benefit amounts. Our advice on claiming strategies does not comprise a comprehensive financial plan. You should consult with your financial adviser regarding your individual situation.

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