Readers ask about Social Security survivor benefits

Stating the rules for Social Security survivor benefits creates more questions than answers. Anticipating all of them is impossible.

Here is a long post comprising many reader questions on this subject. I hope one or more of them will help answer some of your questions.

Kate: I will turn 65 this year. I was married for 29 years to a high wage earner, then divorced. I mostly did not work during those years. I remarried at age 59. Eight and a half months later my new husband died. Based on your Social Security book, which has been very helpful, I am worried that because I remarried before 60, I will lose my divorced spousal benefits. But because my new husband died before we were married for nine months, I am not eligible for widow benefits.

I am freaking out here. Is there any help for me?

Phil Moeller: I am so sorry to hear about your loss.

Fortunately, things are not as bad as you fear. While the book is correct as far as it went. there often are deeper levels to Social Security rules, and your situation involves these finer points.

I reached out to Jerry Lutz, a retired Social Security claims expert who frequently helps me with answers to complicated questions. Here is what he had to say:

A remarriage prior to age 60 that ends in death or divorce doesn’t disqualify a person from being eligible for benefits based on a previous spouse’s record. So, since this lady is not married now it sounds like she would qualify for divorced spousal benefits on her previous husband’s account.

Her high earning spouse must be deceased or be at least age 62 or drawing benefits in order for her to qualify for divorced spousal or survivor benefits, though, and she’d need to wait until full retirement age (FRA) if she doesn’t want to receive a reduced benefit. Her FRA would be age 66 if she was born in 1954 or earlier, and there wouldn’t be any advantage for her to wait past then to file for divorced spousal or survivor benefits if she qualifies.

Furthermore, there are exceptions to the nine-month duration of marriage requirement for widow’s benefits. The most common exception is an accidental death, so if her second husband’s death could be classified as accidental, she might be able to draw reduced benefits on his record now and switch to unreduced benefits on the first husband’s record later. This assumes that her benefit rate on the first husband would be higher than what she’d get on the second husband’s record, but if that’s not the case she’d want to reverse the order. Even a heart attack can be classified as an accidental death if it was caused by unusual exertion (e.g. snow shoveling). She can see details of this policy here.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you still have questions about this.

Susan – New Jersey: I have been reading your Social Security book as part of my retirement planning and was disheartened to learn that, after the death of my beloved first husband, I should have waited until age 60 to remarry my second chance at love. Last year I was told by a local Social Security representative that the age 60 is that magic number which disqualified me from getting survivor benefits from my first husband. This means my 28 years of marriage to him were meaningless in terms of Social Security benefits! She said that if I wanted to collect from my first husband that I should divorce my second husband!

I am sure there are other people in this same situation, where not being aware of the rules is so costly! I wish there was a way to get this information out there better for others. I am now 66. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for me?

Phil Moeller: I’m sorry the Social Security claiming rules have had such an adverse impact on you. If it were up to me, reading our book would be a mandatory requirement, and one I’m sure my publisher would love!

The only thing that comes to mind that might help you in the future is bleak, at best, but I’ll mention it anyway. If your second husband were to die, you would become eligible for a survivor benefit from him or your first husband (whichever is larger).

Of course, Social Security does not pay out both a survivor and a retirement benefit, but just the larger of the two. So, if your age-70 retirement benefit is larger than your survivor benefit, you would not receive any additional money from either survivor benefit.

Alexa: I am 57 years old, was married more than 10 years and qualify for widow’s benefits. Can I claim widow’s benefits at age 60 and then claim my own benefits at age 70?

Phil Moeller: Yes, you can. You are allowed to claim a widow’s benefit as early as age 60 while allowing your own retirement benefit to rise in value until as late as age 70, when it will reach its maximum value. The recent changes in Social Security laws did not affect your rights here. Also, you don’t need to have been married for 10 years but only nine months. The 10-year requirement is for spousal or survivor benefits involving a divorced spouse.

Martha – Michigan: I have read your book but am still confused. I am currently teaching, but this may be my last year. I will reach my full retirement age on my next birthday. My husband died 10 years ago and, due to personal problems, was in and out of work the last 10 years of his life. Even so, he may have earned more money in his lifetime versus me. What advice can you give me about my Social Security options.

Phil Moeller: Your note does not say whether you’ve had Social Security payroll taxes deducted from your pay as a teacher. I’m assuming this is the case, but if not, your right to claim a survivor benefit based on your late husband’s earnings may be impacted by Social Security’s Government Pension Offset rules.

Assuming that you also qualify for your own Social Security benefits, the first thing you should do is find out how much of a survivor benefit you are entitled to at your full retirement age (FRA) and how this compares with your own retirement benefit if you waited until age 70 to claim it.

Survivor benefits reach their maximum amount at your full retirement age; retirement benefits peak at age 70.

If your survivor benefits at 66 will be larger than your own retirement benefits at 70, you should file for a survivor benefit at 66 and just keep receiving it for the rest of your life.

If, however, your retirement benefit at 70 will be larger than your survivor benefit at age 66, you should file for your survivor benefit immediately and then, when you turn 70, file for your own retirement benefit once it’s reached its maximum amount.

You can get an estimate of your retirement benefit by opening an online My Social Security account. It will show you the agency’s formal record of your wage earnings history and includes benefit projections at different claiming ages.

Unless you already have details on your late husband’s benefits, you will need to call Social Security and see if a claims representative will help you compute your survivor benefit. You will need your husband’s Social Security number and, at some point, access to your marriage certificate and his death certificate.

Once you have these details, you can make an informed claiming decision.

Sarah – Calif.: I’m 69. I started receiving Social Security benefits at age 66 under my husband’s work history, because I worked very little outside the home. My husband died two months ago. I was previously married for 15 years to my first husband. Since my first husband earned a lot more, can I now collect Social Security benefits under his work history instead?

Phil Moeller: Yes. You are eligible for these benefits because you are now single following the death of your second husband. You can’t collect two benefits at the same time, of course, but only the larger of the two — either a survivor benefit from your second husband or a survivor or ex-spousal benefit from your first husband. Your note did not say whether your first husband was still alive.

If he is, even though he earned more money, the spousal benefit is much less generous than the survivor benefit. The spousal benefit at most will be half of what your ex-husband was entitled to receive at his full retirement age. The survivor benefit is all of what your late husband was receiving when he died, or would have been entitled to receive if he died before claiming his benefits.

Social Security should be able to help you with this matter. You will need details on both husbands, including marriage, divorce, and death records.

Lisa: I am a widow and will be 60 in two months. I was married to my husband for 12 years. He died in 1993, and I have never remarried. I want to apply for survivor’s benefits to get my late husband’s Social Security benefits. I want to postpone taking my own until after I am 66. Is there anything that I should be concerned about before I start the application process? I know Social Security is very complex, and I want to avoid making any mistakes.

Phil Moeller: Unlike other claiming situations, survivor benefits do not trigger Social Security’s “deeming” rules. This means you can file for a survivor benefit without also triggering a claim for your own retirement benefits at the same time. Alternatively, you can file for retirement without triggering your survivor claim. Because of this, it’s important for you to learn how your survivor benefits will compare with your own retirement benefits.

While you can take survivor benefits as early as age 60, they will be reduced at that claiming age and don’t reach their maximum value unless you wait until your full retirement age to claim them.

Your own retirement benefits, by contrast, can be claimed as early as age 62, but will grow in value by 7 to 8 percent a year for each year you delay claiming them until you turn 70, when they reach their maximum value.

I would begin by figuring out the values of these two benefits at different claiming ages. You can open an online “my Social Security” account to help you with these calculations. It would also help if you can get access to your late husband’s work history or have someone from Social Security help you calculate your widow’s benefit at different claiming ages.

If your retirement benefit will be the larger of the two, then you should file for your widow’s benefit as soon as you turn 60. While it will be reduced, you know now that you will shift to your larger retirement benefit later. In that case, the cumulative amount of these reduced survivor payments will still be maximized by beginning them right away.

On the other hand, if your widow’s payments are going to be larger than your own retirement benefits, you would want to delay taking them until they reach their maximum amount at your full retirement age. In this case, you would begin taking your own retirement benefit at 62 (the earliest you can do so) and then switch to your survivor benefit at your full retirement age.

Whatever you decide, make sure you express your claiming preferences very clearly to Social Security. I prefer face-to-face meetings in a Social Security office, but understand that it can be difficult to schedule appointments.

Svet: Before he died last year, my father had 38 of the required 40 quarters of work credits needed to qualify for Social Security benefits. Does my mother have a claim to a portion of my father’s partial Social Security entitlement? If not, can she contribute the two “missing” quarters from her work record to receive the appropriate beneficiary benefit for a widow?

Phil Moeller: If your father died after reaching age 62, there is no basis for your mother receiving a survivor benefit, and the rules do not permit another person to contribute credits to his account. If he died at age 60 or younger, she would qualify for benefits because the agency would adjust the hours needed. Thirty-eight quarters of so-called covered earnings would be enough to qualify for someone who died two years before reaching the earliest age at which benefits normally are available.

Christine: I have searched the Internet and found no answer to my dad’s problem. Mom just died, at 74. She earned $1,400 a month in Social Security. Dad is 74 and gets $1,200 a month. This was their only income and it barely covered their expenses. They have no savings.

Now Social Security has told my dad that he will get only $1,400 a month and that his benefit would stop! That is just not enough to live on. I can’t believe our government does this to the elderly! Is there something more we need to know? Is there a way to get both? Now, besides losing his wife of 50 years, he will be in debt for the first time. Is there anything he can do?

Phil Moeller: Sadly, these are the rules. When one spouse dies, the lower Social Security payment goes away. I can cite you all sorts of reasons why this is the case, and even why it is “fair,” but they won’t alter the unpleasant surprise faced by your dad and many other surviving spouses.

When Social Security was created in 1935, very few women were in the workforce. The man’s benefit was the dominant source of retirement income, so family benefits did not drop off sharply when one spouse died. With the percentage of women in the labor force now about equal to men, this is no longer the case. And with the first baby boomers now age 75, the volume of these very difficult survivor situations will be increasing sharply.

Among the many, many proposals to change Social Security is one that would provide surviving spouses higher benefits – say 75 percent of what both spouses had been receiving. This would help Christine’s dad a great deal but, of course, creating such a benefit also would increase Social Security spending.

Assuming that Democrats and Republicans might someday be willing to sit down together and consider badly needed Social Security reforms, they need to devise ways to pay for them. Social Security is projected to run short of funds by 2034, and perhaps sooner, and would be able then to pay less than 80 percent of the benefits that people have been promised.

Historically, Social Security has always been a self-supported benefit that was entirely funded by payroll taxes. This has been one of its greatest strengths, allowing it independence from the kinds of government logjams that regularly tie other programs in knots.

To maintain this independence, the program will have to get congressional approval for a combination of higher payroll taxes from some or all wage earnings, some program cuts, and also some increases in benefits, such as raising payments to surviving spouses. Getting Congress to agree on such a package is not feasible now, and fashioning a solution will only get harder.