When My Spouse Dies, What Will I Get From Social Security?
By: Tom R. Hager - May 30, 2019
How Social Security Survivor Benefits Work
This question, “When my spouse dies, what will I get from Social Security,” is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive during consultations and presentations, and for some reason so very few act on the available survivor benefits. The typical response from a living spouse is “I didn’t think I was entitled to anything.” That’s not the case. Today’s article will address the benefits available to a current spouse and ex-spouse.
Let’s briefly touch on the benefits available to children that may be explored in an upcoming column. In general, if you are caring for a child who is under 16 or disabled, you are eligible to receive benefits for that child no matter what age you are.
Back to spouses and ex-spouses and survivor benefits. My advice is always be proactive and contact Social Security as soon as possible after your spouse passes away as benefits will only start once you apply. Survivor benefits are considered separate from your own retirement benefit, are flexible and paid for the rest of your life.
What does it take to qualify for survivor benefits?
- Need to be at least 60 or age 50, if disabled
- Need to be single
- Married at least 9 months, except in case of an accident with a current spouse
- Married 10 years -ex-spouse
If you qualify, based on the above, this is what you can receive:
- If your deceased spouse HAS NOT FILED for benefits and passed away BEFORE FULL RETIREMENT AGE, you are entitled to receive the deceased’s full retirement age benefit.
- If your deceased spouse HAS NOT FILED for benefits and passed away AFTER FULL RETIREMENT AGE, you are entitled to receive the deceased’s benefit as if they filed on the date of death
- If your deceased spouse DID FILE for benefits BEFORE FULL RETIREMENT AGE, you are entitled to receive what your spouse was receiving or 82.5% of your deceased spouse’s full retirement age benefit.
- If your deceased spouse DID FILE for benefits ON OR AFTER FULL RETIREMENT AGE, you are entitled to receive what the deceased was receiving at the date of death.
The benefit amounts described above are available to the surviving spouse based on the surviving spouses’ age. If the survivor benefits are taken at the survivor’s full retirement age, the benefit will be equal to 100% of the deceased spouses’ benefit amount. If the surviving spouse takes the benefit before their full retirement age, they are reduced for the survivors’ filing age based on the following scale:
60 - 71.50% (age 50, if disabled)
61 - 76.25%
62 - 81.00%
63 - 85.75%
64 - 90.50%
65 - 95.25%
66 - 100% (or your full retirement age, if born after 1954)
As I mentioned before, survivor benefits are more flexible. You can coordinate your worker benefit and the survivor benefit to your advantage. Assuming you are eligible, you should always consider taking either your own worker benefit or the survivor benefit as soon as possible. You can then later choose to switch to the other benefit.
Here is another strategy you need to consider which is only available to survivor benefits. If you are contemplating getting remarried, do it after you reach 60. If you remarry before age 60, you cannot receive survivor benefits. If you remarry after 60, you can continue to receive survivor benefits.
One absolute regarding survivor benefits is there is NO advantage to wait to start collecting survivor benefits after you reach your full retirement age. Also, if you are both receiving benefits when one spouse passes away, you cannot continue to collect both benefits. The lower benefit of the two will disappear. So, if your own worker benefit exceeds the survivor benefit, you will not receive a survivor benefit as Social Security will pay the higher of the two benefits.
The following rules also need to be considered:
- Annual Earnings Limitation-applies until you reach your full retirement age
- Government Pension Offset-applies if you are receiving another government pension and did not contribute to Social Security
- Family Maximum-caps total amount paid out to family members from a wage earner who has passed away.
- Windfall Elimination Provision-does not apply
- Deemed filing-does not apply
One last bit of advice, you are entitled to a one-time death benefit of $255, if you’re sharing a house with the spouse at the time of death. If you’re living in separate locations at the time of death, you’ll receive the benefit based on the eligibility of the deceased spouse. If there’s no spouse, a dependent child under 18 is eligible for the benefit. There are additional exceptions to this – but that’s the general rule.
** Disclaimer Required by IRS Circular 230** Unless otherwise expressly approved in advance by the undersigned, any discussion of federal tax matters herein is not intended and cannot be used 1) to avoid penalties under the Federal tax laws, or 2) to promote, market or recommend to another party any transaction or tax-related matter addressed.