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Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – What will my wife’s survivor benefit be?

Dear Rusty: I am a 68-year-old retired male and had planned on waiting to collect Social Security benefits beginning at age 70. My wife is currently 53 years old. When I die, would my wife’s spousal benefit at her full retirement age be equal to what I would be receiving at age 70 or be reduced? Also, if I were to die before 70 and before collecting Social Security, what would be my wife’s survivor benefit at her full retirement age? Signed: Older Husband

Dear Older Husband: Your wife’s survivor benefit as your widow will depend upon two things – the amount you were receiving (or were eligible to receive) at your death, and the age at which she claims her survivor benefit as your widow.

If you were receiving an increased benefit because you waited until age 70, your wife’s benefit – if she has reached her full retirement age – will be 100% of the amount you were receiving at your death. If she hasn’t yet reached her full retirement age when she claims her survivor benefit (she could claim as early as age 60) the benefit will be actuarially reduced according to the number of months prior to her full retirement age (FRA) that she claims it. The amount of reduction for claiming her survivor benefit before her FRA is 0.396% for each full month earlier, which is 4.75% per year earlier than her FRA, to a maximum of 28.5%. And for clarity, your wife isn’t required to take the survivor benefit immediately upon your death; she can wait until the benefit reaches 100% at her full retirement age, if desired and if financially feasible.

If your wife is also eligible for a SS benefit on her own work record and you die before she reaches her FRA, she will have the choice to take either her own Social Security benefit or her survivor benefit from you. If her survivor benefit will be her highest possible benefit, she would have the option to take her own SS retirement benefit from her own work record first and delay taking the larger survivor benefit until it reaches maximum at her FRA. Or, if her own benefit at age 70 would be more than her survivor benefit from you, she could take the smaller survivor benefit first and delay taking her own SS benefit until it reaches maximum at age 70 and switch to her own benefit at that time. The goal is for her to get the highest possible benefit for the rest of her life.

Finally, if you were to die before you started collecting your increased Social Security benefit at age 70, your wife would still have the same options, but her survivor benefit amount would be based upon the amount you were eligible to receive at your death, even though you were not yet collecting. In other words, all those delayed retirement credits (DRCs) you are now earning (and will continue to earn until you are 70) will not be lost – the benefit you have earned up to the point you die will be what your wife’s survivor benefit is based upon.

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