What Happens to My Spouse If I Die Before Claiming Social Security?

Senior couple
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This week’s question comes from Don:

“My wife will be 62 next year. I am 62 presently. She has worked for about 15 years and became a stay-at-home mother. I have been working all my life and still do so presently. I am not drawing Social Security yet. If we both were qualified to, she would draw less than me.

If she starts drawing at age 62, and I continue to work and not draw mine, but die before I begin collecting benefits, would she miss out on drawing mine instead of hers? I know that if we are both drawing, the surviving spouse gets the larger of the two checks. But what if one passes before drawing?”

Nothing to worry about

Don, you have nothing to be concerned about here. Suppose you die before you claim your benefits. For calculating survivor’s benefits — also known as “widow’s benefits” — the Social Security Administration assumes you claimed benefits on the day that you died.

As an example, assume that you die on your 69th birthday and that you had not claimed benefits. Your wife will receive a widow’s benefit equal to the amount you would have gotten had you applied on that day.

This provision discussed above provides an important incentive for the higher-benefit spouse to delay claiming benefits. The higher-benefit spouse of a traditional couple is typically the husband, who generally has a shorter life expectancy than the wife. Moreover, wives tend to be younger than husbands.

So, the husband’s benefits may well outlive him for many years. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that a significant number of husbands fail to give little, if any, weight to survivor’s benefits when they make their claiming decision.

How surviving spouses get preferential treatment

There are several other ways that Social Security offers preferential treatment for surviving spouses (and surviving ex-spouses who were married at least 10 years). I’m going to talk here about “widows,” but the same facts apply to “widowers.”

First, widows can claim benefits as early as age 60. In contrast, spousal benefits cannot be claimed until age 62. Of course, early claiming always carries a penalty with it.

Second, widows are permitted to switch between their own benefits and survivor’s benefits when doing so is financially advantageous.

For example, some widows claim survivor’s benefits first, letting their own benefit grow, perhaps up to age 70. Alternatively, some widows claim their own benefit first and then switch to survivor’s benefits at their full retirement age. In contrast to survivor’s benefits, switching spousal and personal retirement benefits in this way is no longer available to spouses born in 1954 or later.

Another advantage available to widows is that they can remarry after turning 60 and not lose their survivor’s benefits. Ex-spouses who are not widowed do not have this opportunity. If the new marriage makes them eligible for spousal benefits on the new spouse’s record, then all spousal benefits coming from a previous marriage are lost.

Clearly, these can be complicated issues. In general, people thinking about claiming Social Security benefits may well benefit from inexpensive professional help.

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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 SocialSecurityChoices.com, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

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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