Social Security Survivor Benefits

The Social Security system has provisions for taking care of surviving spouses of workers who have earned credits under the system.  There are two particular benefits that you should be aware of – a small death benefit of $250, and a Survivor Benefit based upon the worker’s Primary Insurance Amount.  It is the latter benefit that we are discussing today.

The Social Security Survivor Benefit

When a primary wage earner dies, the Social Security system has a way to help care for the surviving spouse.  The Survivor Benefit is generally equal to the primary wage earner’s retirement benefit – this benefit replaces other spousal retirement benefits (the one that is equal to 50% of the primary wage earner’s benefit, available while the primary wage earner is living – see here for more detail). The mechanics of the Social Security Survivor Benefit can apply to widows or widowers at various ages, depending upon the circumstances, as well as to the children and/or parents of the primary worker.  We’ll cover each sort of individual in turn…

Widows and Widowers

When the primary wage earner dies, the surviving spouse is entitled to receive a retirement benefit based on the primary wage earner’s retirement benefit.  Of course, if the surviving spouse’s retirement benefit based upon his or her own record is equal to or more than the deceased spouse’s benefit, the surviving spouse will continue to receive his or her own retirement benefit. If the surviving spouse elects to begin receiving survivor benefits before Full Retirement Age (FRA), the benefit is subject to actuarial reduction.  Since a surviving spouse is eligible to begin receiving early benefits at age 60 (instead of age 62 for regular or spousal benefits), the “usual” age table is changed by 2 years.  Whereas FRA for regular or spousal benefits for those born between 1943 and 1954 is age 66, for a survivor benefit, FRA for those born between 1945 and 1956 is age 66.  (See this article for the FRA ages and this article actuarial adjustments.  Adjust the ages and years by 2 for Survivor Benefit.)  If the surviving spouse is disabled, early benefits may be received any time after age 50, with the actuarial reduction assuming benefits begin at age 60 (no further reduction, in other words). In addition to the benefit mentioned above, there is a Survivor Benefit available to a younger spouse if there are children under age 16 that the surviving spouse is caring for, or a child of any age who has become disabled before age 22.  This Survivor Benefit is equal to 75% of the FRA benefit of the deceased spouse – and only lasts until the child reaches age 16.  At the same time, each child under age 18 will receive a Survivor Benefit (more on this later) until age 18. It should be noted that there is no increase in benefits by delaying receipt of benefits after FRA, so a widow or widower should begin receiving Survivor Benefits at FRA and no later. It should also be noted that divorced spouses who survive a deceased worker are also eligible for the Survivor Benefit.

Children

Any child under age 18 (19 if attending school) who survives a deceased worker that has earned the maximum credits is eligible to receive a Survivor Benefit equal to the actuarially reduced amount of the FRA of the deceased parent.  This amount is 75% of the FRA benefit of the surviving child’s parent, and this benefit will be payable until the child reaches age 18 (or 19). In addition to the children of the deceased worker, this benefit can be available to step-children, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, or adopted children of the deceased worker, if the deceased worker provided 1/2 or more support to the child.

Surviving Parents Over Age 62

In the event that the deceased worker had provided more than 1/2 of the support of one or more older parents (over age 62), the surviving parents are eligible to receive a Survivor Benefit as well.  This Survivor Benefit is based on the age of the surviving parent, and actuarial reductions apply to these benefits if received before FRA of the survivor.

Family Maximum

For the whole family of the deceased wage earner, that is, surviving children under 18, spouse and parents, there is a maximum benefit amount that applies – equal to between 150% and 180% of the deceased worker’s basic benefit (the calculation is complicated, using the bend point formulas).  The Social Security website has a calculator to help you understand this amount. Bear in mind that any Survivor Benefit received by a surviving divorced spouse to not count toward this family maximum.

About the author

Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA

Jim Blankenship is the founder and principal of Blankenship Financial Planning, Ltd., a financial planning firm providing hourly, as-needed financial planning and advice. A financial services professional for over 25 years, Jim is a CFP professional and has earned the Enrolled Agent designation, a designation that qualifies him as enrolled to practice before the IRS. Jim is also a NAPFA-registered financial advisor, which designates him as a Fee-Only Financial Advisor.

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17 Comments

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  • Mike,

    In answer to your question list:

    1) Yes, this is still a viable option. It may be at some point considered a loophole and therefore targeted for closure, but I’ve not seen anything official about that.
    2) No, receiving the Spousal Benefit after FRA would have no impact on your own retirement benefit.
    3) Your continued employment after FRA will have no impact on the amount of any Spousal Benefit you would be eligible to receive. Prior to FRA, employment while receiving benefits can reduce the benefit, but after FRA you can earn as much as you like.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • If my spouse starts collecting social security benefits while I continue to be employed beyond age 66, I understand that I could immediately begin to collect a spousal benefit based on my spouse’s earnings while allowing my own benefit to grow (to maximize the Survivor Benefit). Then, when I eventually retire in a few years, I could switch to my own benefit, which would be significantly larger than the spousal benefit.
    Questions:
    1) Is this strategy still a viable option, or is this technique considered a loophole targeted for closure?
    2) Would my collecting a spousal benefit in this manner reduce my own (eventual) benefit in any way?
    3) Would the spousal benefit be reduced so significantly during my continued employment that there is little or no advantage in doing this?

  • Excellent question Mike. The answer to your example is that the Survivor Benefit would be the same as if you had started receiving your benefit at the age you were when you passed away, 68 in your example.

    That would represent the “base” against which your wife would receive benefits, depending on the age that she elected to receive that benefit. If she was FRA at that point, she’d get the full amount. Less if she started earlier.

    jb

  • I am presently 65 and have not started social security benefits. I plan to wait until 69 or 70 before starting, so that the survivor benefit will be as large as possible.

    Question: Although the survivor benefit amount is straightforward if I start benefits before I die, what would the survivor benefit be if I were to die before starting social security benefits? If, for example, I died at age 68 and had not yet started benefits, would the survivor benefit be the benefit I would have been able to collect at the time of my death, or would it be only my full-benefit (age 66) amount (Primary Insurance Amount)?

  • I am 75 yrs old and my wife is 63. This is a second marriage for both of us. My first wife died after 45 yrs.
    My current wife was married 25 yrs when her husband left and divorced her. We now have been married almost 9 yrs.
    My wife was 55 yrs old when we married.

    I started drawing my soc sec at age 62. My wife is still working.

    I would like to know what soc sec benefit beside the lump sum payment of $255, if any, would my wife qualify for in the event of my death.

    Thanks
    CLB

  • hi jim : my wife passed away about 6 years ago my 2 sons have been drawing survivors benifits my oldest son just turned 19 when his benifit stops will my youngest sons benifit increase or stay the same.

  • Hello, Jean –

    The answer to your question is – taxes can be taken directly from your Social Security deposits, but they are not automatically taken. You need to request this via form W4-V. You could also make up the tax payment via your other sources of income, or through quarterly estimated payments. For more on all these options, see this article on withholding and your Social Security benefits.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • Dear Jim,
    I wish I could have had access to your comments:a wealth of education for FREE. Thank you so much. Without social security I
    would be lost and unable to survive. My spouse had higher rate than mine and Social Security imediately paid me higher rate.I am grateful for this government, which is best in the world, and I applaud you for teaching us things we never knew about survivors benefits. If some of my other writing didn’t make much sense, forgive me, as my grief is so great, my thoughts may have been misaligned.

  • EFT payments are wonderful UNLESS primary wage-earner dies–andthe eft payments keep running on and on month after month following spouse demise-because the collectors of such unjustified enrichments refuse to refund surviror. AS survivor and non-access to even stop any eft payments–are get, complicated by the privacy act.” If YOU are not one the account–your spouse’s money can be used to unjustly enrich ALL those with eft collection priveleges for a looong time,as it did in my case. c

  • Hi Bernistine,take solace for the divorce. Ours thought himself a millionaire ran up excessive $48,000, stopped life insurance payments and borrowed $3,500 against $5,000 policy, leaving widow with legacy of loans which var exceeds assets. Moreover hedelusioned” he HAD paid (unpaid IRS for 5 straight years IRS threatened lien on hom4UN0Paid $11,000 in tqxes,Assets:23,000 Liabilities $48,000 amounts to Financial terrorism! So, be grateful your dad did not throw your mom in debtor’s Hello.

  • Hi, bernistine –

    If you’re referring to Social Security, then yes, as long as your mother has not remarried and she’s at least age 62, she should be eligible for Survivor’s benefits. She just needs to contact the SSA and start the payments.

    Hope this helps –

    jb

  • My mother was marrieed to my father for 50 years. He suffered 2 “near death” experiences and his behavior changed. He had an affair with the “married woman next door” and he divorced my mother (my mother refused to sign the divorce decree)and married the “other woman.” My dad died after being married to the “other woman” for three years and now she, the “other woman” is collecting survivor benefits from my father. Is this right and can my mother, wife of 50 years, collect any kind of benefits from my father’s death?

  • If I die what will be my wifes survivor social security monthly payment? I took Soc. Sec. at age 62. I am now 69 and my wife is 66.
    If I die will she get my benefit when I was 62 or will she get my full retirement benefit if took it at 66?

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