Social Security Q&A: What Will My Spouse Get If I Die?

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Today’s question comes from Mike:

If I begin taking Social Security at 68 and I die, will my wife get that benefit? Or is it capped at what I would have received at full retirement age (FRA)?

Mike, the direct answer to your question is that your wife will receive the Social Security benefit that you would receive if you claim at 68. In general, if you claim your benefit at any time after your FRA — which is set between 65 and 67, depending on age of birth — your spouse will receive your benefit, as long as it is the higher of the two benefits.

From the way that you phrased your question, I take it that you are the higher-earning spouse. When making a claiming decision, the higher-earning spouse should consider not only their own life expectancy but also the life expectancy of their spouse.

Since the survivor will get the larger of the two benefits, the longer the higher-earning spouse waits to claim, the larger the survivor’s benefit will be.

Age matters

When to claim benefits depends on how long you and your wife might live. This is one of life’s great unknowns. There are, however, some statistical clues. At age 65, the life expectancy of a woman is 86.7, according to the Social Security Administration (SSA). For a man, it is 84.3.

About 25 percent of 65-year-olds will live past age 90, the SSA says. So, the survivor’s benefit is important.

These projections are for the entire population, but data show that specific life circumstances can influence how long you live. For example, if you have a life-threatening medical condition, you are unlikely to live as long as these projections. On the other hand, people with a high income are more likely to live longer than those with lower incomes.

By the way, this last issue is now part of a debate about raising the full retirement age. In order to protect the solvency of the Social Security system, many policymakers are proposing increasing the FRA to 70. Others argue that this will hurt low-income people, who have a shorter life expectancy.

One final note regarding when to claim benefits: I would discount doomsayers who argue you should claim early because the Social Security system has financial problems. Changes are, indeed, needed to protect the solvency of the system. We do not know what these changes will be, but all indications are they will be more likely to affect younger people than people who are claiming their benefits now.

An exception is a proposed change in how benefits are adjusted for inflation, but this change does not affect when it is the best time to claim benefits.

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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, 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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