Ask Bob: What Social Security Benefit Will My Surviving Spouse Receive?

Robert Powell, CFP®

Question

I have several questions about the impact of my death on my future wife’s Social Security benefits. I am 71 and waited to age 70 to collect Social Security benefits which are $3,837.70 per month. My fiancée is 55 and we plan to marry in about two years.

If I pre-decease her after our marriage:

1. What is the duration of our marriage required for her to receive the Social Security widow benefit?

2. Is the widow benefit calculation based on my delayed Social Security (currently $3,837.70) or FRA benefit amount?

3. Is there an age requirement for her to collect widow benefits?

4. Does she collect only the greater of her own Social Security or the widow benefit, or both? She will have a great diminished Social Security benefit based upon her wages and work history. Your answer is therefore a very important one for her future security.

Answer

All of the questions that were asked are important and very common, as the Social Security statement doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the details of widow/widower benefits (also called survivors benefits).

Here, according to Rob Kron, a certified financial planner and head of advisor education at Nuveen, are the answers to your questions:

1. To claim a survivors benefit the marriage needs to have lasted at least 9 months prior to death, unless the death was due to an accident or military service. In either of those cases, there is no time requirement.

2. The survivors benefit that a widow can receive from their deceased spouse includes:

· Increases that the deceased spouse earned from delayed retirement credits (the raise you get for waiting past your full retirement age to collect a retirement benefit).

· Reductions that the deceased spouse incurred as a result of taking a retirement benefit prior to full retirement age (reductions are capped at 17.5%)

3. The earliest someone can collect a survivor benefit is 60. But keep in mind that by collecting it prior to full retirement age, it will be reduced and if the widow has more than $18,200 (the threshold for 2020 – it increases each year) of work-related earning, $1 for every $2 over that threshold would be withheld. Unlike individual benefits, survivor benefits don’t get a raise for waiting past full retirement age.

4. If the widow has an individual benefit and is eligible for a survivor benefit, the widow can choose which one to collect first. They can’t collect both at the same time. So she could take a reduced survivor benefit at 60 and then switch to her own benefit at 70 (after it has earned the delayed retirement credits). Alternatively, she could claim her own reduced benefit at 62 and switch to the survivor benefit at full retirement age. Keep in mind that any benefit collected before full retirement age are subject to the withholding test I mentioned above.

Because there are many complexities associated with Social Security, Kron recommends anyone struggling with the decision to seek the assistance of a qualified financial professional. Other factors usually play a critical role in making an informed decision and Social Security elections are often difficult, if not impossible to unwind.

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