Social Security Matters: Ask Rusty – When is my wife eligible for full survivor benefits?

Published 3:53 pm Wednesday, November 23, 2022

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By AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor Russell Gloor, Association of Mature American Citizens

Dear Rusty: I heard my spouse will get 100% of my Social Security when I pass if she is at her full retirement age (FRA), which is 66 years and 8 months. But I also heard that full widow benefits for those born in 1958 are available at 66 years and 4 months. Which is correct?

Then I heard that her getting 100% of my Social Security is NOT the case because I started Social Security at 70. I heard this is because widow benefits are based on my benefit at my full retirement age. So, will my wife get 100% of my Social Security if she starts it at her FRA, or will she get my smaller FRA amount?

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My wife is now getting spousal benefits and I also heard that for those getting spousal benefits, Social Security automatically changes that to widow benefits when the other spouse passes. If I die before my wife reaches her FRA, can she tell Social Security to NOT give her widow benefits at that time? Can she wait until she is at her FRA and then start widow benefits to get 100% of mine? Signed: Concerned Husband

Dear Concerned: I’ll be happy to clear all this up for you. There are two “full retirement age” numbers which will be in effect for your wife if you pass first – 1) her “normal” full retirement age (FRA), and 2) her “widow’s full retirement age.”

Your wife’s “normal FRA” is 66 years and 8 months and that is when her personal SS retirement benefit can be claimed without reduction, and when she will no longer be subject to Social Security’s earnings test if she is still working. Your wife’s “widow’s FRA” is determined by subtracting two years from her birth year and the FRA number for that year becomes her “widows FRA,” which is the age at which she becomes eligible for unreduced survivor benefits. In your wife’s case her “widow’s FRA” is 4 months earlier than her normal FRA, or 66 years and 4 months.

The confusion about whether your wife’s survivor benefit will be based on your FRA entitlement, or your age 70 amount usually stems from the fact that a spouse’s benefit while both partners are living is based on FRA amounts, whereas your wife’s benefit as your surviving spouse is based on the full amount you were receiving when you died. Thus, your wife’s current benefit as your spouse is based on your age 66 amount, but her benefit as your widow will be based on your age 70 amount. If you predeceased her, your wife’s benefit as your survivor (if she has reached her “widow’s FRA” of 66 plus 4 months) will be 100% of your age 70 amount (including any cost of living adjustments subsequently awarded), and that will replace the smaller benefit she is now receiving as your spouse.

Whether your wife’s survivor benefit will be automatically awarded depends on whether her current benefit consists of her own Social Security retirement benefit from her own lifetime work record plus a spousal boost from your record. If that is the case, then her survivor benefit will not be awarded until she claims it. If, however, your wife’s current benefit is based solely on your record, when Social Security receives notification of your death, they will automatically award your wife’s benefit as your surviving widow. If she has already reached her “widow’s FRA” when that happens, her new benefit amount will be the same as you were receiving when you died. But if your wife hasn’t yet reached her widow’s FRA, her survivor benefit will be awarded at that time but reduced by .396% for each month earlier than her FRA. So, if her current benefit is based solely on your Social Security earnings record, your wife will not have the option to delay her survivor benefit until her widow’s FRA.