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Social Security: Understanding Spousal Benefits – Surviving Spouses

Understanding Social Security survivor benefits is important for all widows and widowers so that they can be sure to receive all of the Social Security benefits for which they may be entitled. This article focuses on Social Security survivor benefits for surviving spouses.

When a spouse passes away, Social Security will pay survivor benefits to the surviving spouse for the remainder of his or her life. The general rule is that the marriage must have lasted for at least nine months. However, there are exceptions. For instance, if one spouse passes away as a result of an accident or act of war, survivor benefits are payable no matter how brief the marriage.

Survivor benefits are based on the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) of the decedent. The decedent’s PIA is the amount he or she received, or was eligible to receive, at Full Retirement Age (FRA). The survivor benefits also include any delayed retirement credits earned by the decedent. As long as the survivor has reached his or her FRA, he or she is eligible for 100% of what the decedent was receiving, or was eligible to receive at his or her passing. A surviving spouse is eligible to claim reduced benefits from the decedent’s work record as early as age 60. Assuming an FRA of age 66, the survivor could claim 71.5% of the decedent’s PIA at age 60. This percentage will increase every year the survivor waits to access survivor benefits until FRA, when he or she is eligible to receive 100%.

If neither spouse is collecting Social Security when one spouse passes away, the surviving spouse has access to two Social Security benefits, his or her own and the decedent’s. Social Security will let the survivor take one of the benefits for a period of time and switch to the other later. For instance, a survivor could claim the decedent’s Social Security from age 60 until age 70 and then switch to his or her own maximized work record benefit at age 70. This allows the survivor’s work record benefit to earn valuable delayed retirement credits of 8% per year from FRA until age 70. Conversely, the survivor could claim his or her own Social Security at age 62 and switch to the decedent’s benefit at FRA.

In order to make the most beneficial claiming decision, you must determine which benefit is larger, the amount at the decedent’s FRA or at the survivor’s age 70. You should be aware that prior to FRA, either benefit could be reduced by the earnings test if the survivor is collecting a benefit and earning income above set thresholds.

Remarriage prior to age 60 disqualifies a survivor from collecting surviving spouse benefits. However, if you remarry after age 60, you can still claim a survivor benefit.

There are many misconceptions surrounding Social Security survivor benefits. It is extremely important that you understand your options during such a difficult time in your life, so that you can receive all of the benefits for which you may be eligible. Consult with your legal and tax advisors.