Social Security Q&A: How Do Survivor Benefits Work?

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Welcome to “Social Security Q&A.” You ask a Social Security question, and our guest expert provides the answer.

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This week’s question is from Patti:

My first husband died in 1995, at the age of 31. We had two young boys at the time, they were 7 and 10. I collected survivors benefits until the youngest was 18, so roughly 11 years. In 2005, I remarried. My question: Will I be able to collect from my first husband’s Social Security benefits when I retire, or did I use up his money because I collected the survivors benefits?

Patti, you will not be eligible for his benefits, but not for the reasons that you might think.

If a widow remarries before the age of 60, Social Security benefits become tied to her present husband’s Social Security record, rather than the record of her deceased spouse. If you had waited until 60 to remarry, then you could have chosen between taking survivors benefits on your first husband’s record or spousal benefits on your present husband’s record.

There is a significant difference between these two situations because a widow’s benefit is calculated on the basis of the deceased husband’s full benefit, and the spousal benefit is calculated on the basis of half of a husband’s benefit. To illustrate, suppose the benefit at full retirement age (FRA) that either husband can claim is $1,000. In both cases, the actual amount received by the wife will depend on when she claims a benefit. If a widow waits until FRA to claim her benefit, then she will receive $1,000. If a spouse waits until FRA to claim a benefit, she will receive $500.

In either case, claiming a benefit before FRA will reduce these amounts, but there is a difference here as well. A widow can claim at 60, but a spouse must wait until 62 — and even then, her husband has to claim his benefit first. Using the numbers above, a widow who claims at 60 will receive $715. A spouse who claims at 62 will receive between $321 and $350, depending on her birth year. (The reason for this range of possible spousal benefits is that the FRA increases for people born after 1954 and moves up from 66 to 67 in a series of steps. Younger people will get the smaller benefit.)

Patti, if you can claim Social Security on your own record, you need to look at the size of the widow benefit or spousal benefit and compare this to your own benefit to see what kind of claiming strategy you should pursue. This raises another entirely new set of issues, where consulting a Social Security calculator like the one created by my firm can help you make the best decision.

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About me

I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. I now do the same at Gallaudet University.

In 2009, I co-founded SocialSecurityChoices.com, 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 Social Security Administration 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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