Surviving spouse benefits explained

Question: If I file at age 63 what percentage does my wife receive if I die? Does this percentage change if I wait to file closer to my full retirement age? And what does my wife receive if I die before I file for my benefits? Signed: Planning Ahead

Dear Planning: When you file for your own Social Security benefit will affect the survivor benefit your wife is entitled to as your widow. If you claim at age 63, her benefit as your widow will be based on your age 63 amount. If you wait longer to claim your own Social Security, your own benefit will be higher and so will your wife’s entitlement as your survivor. In other words, your wife’s benefit as your widow will be based on the amount you are receiving when you die, and the longer you wait to claim your own Social Security, the higher your wife’s survivor entitlement will be.

Exactly how much your wife will get monthly as your widow depends also on her own age when she claims her survivor benefit. If you were to die first, your wife can claim a reduced survivor benefit as early as age 60 but doing so will result in a benefit which is 28.5 percent lower than it would be if she waits until her own full retirement age (67) to claim. Survivor benefits do not reach maximum until the survivor reaches full retirement age and, if claimed before that, the benefit will be reduced by 4.75 percent for each full year early, to a maximum reduction of 28.5 percent. So, although your wife’s base survivor benefit will be the actual (100 percent) amount you were receiving when you die, her monthly survivor payment will be reduced if she claims the survivor benefit before her FRA. It is an actuarial reduction of .396 percent less survivor benefit for each month prior to FRA the survivor benefit is claimed.

If you wait to file for your own benefit but die before you actually start collecting your benefits, your wife’s entitlement as your widow will be based upon the amount you were entitled to when you died. She will not lose her survivor benefit — it will be based upon the amount you were entitled to when you died, even though you had not yet claimed. Your wife can also delay claiming her survivor benefit until she reaches her FRA to maximize her benefit as your widow. But there is more to consider.

If your wife is working full time, it is often not prudent (and may not be possible) to collect Social Security benefits before reaching full retirement age. That’s because of Social Security’s earnings test, which limits how much can be earned while collecting SS benefits before FRA. The earnings limit for 2022 is $19,560 (changes yearly) and if that is exceeded SS will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 over the limit. If the limit is significantly exceeded your wife could be temporarily ineligible to get benefits, until her earnings are less, or until she reaches her full retirement age (the earnings limit no longer applies when FRA is reached).

Finally, it’s important to note that all Social Security rules are gender-neutral, meaning that the rules apply equally to both spouses. But in any case, a surviving spouse can only get one benefit – either their own or their survivor benefit, whichever is highest.