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Social Security for Widows

By Marcus Taylor

With April being Social Security month, we wanted to talk about an important issue that might affect a lot of married couple at some point during their retirement years. Now, unfortunately, this isn’t a very fun topic for people to think about, but it is one that is very crucial to plan for and one that can have a significant impact on your income. 

In this blog, we will be going over the different situations where your social security can be affected if you are a widow or become a widower. 

It is crucial for people to plan for social security after a spouse has passed away. For a lot of people, their social security benefit can make up a significant portion of their retirement income. It should be noted that if a spouse dies after both has started receiving Social Security benefit, the surviving spouse can switch to the higher benefit amount. Therefore, we generally recommend that the higher-earning spouse claim benefits as late as possible, or age 70, in order to maximize their own benefit while they are alive and to give the surviving spouse a higher survivor benefit after they pass. 

What happens if someone becomes widowed while they still have dependent children at home?

If this happens, then the surviving spouse and the children may qualify for survivor benefits based on the deceased spouse’s work record. The benefit for each family member is 75% of the primary insurance amount or PIA and is not to exceed the family maximum in a year. The children’s benefits may continue until age 18, or 19 if still in high school. The widow’s own child-in-care benefit may continue until the youngest child turns 16. 

What happens if a spouse becomes a widower prior to age 60?

If that is the case, there are some special rules that could apply to them in regards to their benefit and survivors benefits. However, if the surviving spouse claims survivor benefits at age 60, it will be reduced to 71.5% of the full amount. So, in some situations it may be better to start survivor benefits at full retirement age, which is 66 for widows born between 1945 and 1956.

On the other hand, if the spouse has a strong work record and a higher PIA or Primary Insurance Amount, they could go ahead and start their reduced survivor benefit at age 60, then switch to their own benefit at age 70. 

Here are a few more examples to explain this in detail.

If the widows’ survivor benefit at FRA is $2,200 and their own PIA at Full retirement age is $900.

Scenario 1: They start the survivor benefit at age 60, which would pay them $1,573 - remember this is a reduction because they started prior to FRA. In this case, they would continue to receive that benefit for life because the survivor benefit is higher than their own benefit would be. 

Scenario 2: If they start their own reduced retirement benefit at 62 and switch to the full survivor benefit at 66. Here, they would receive $675 from 62 to 66, which is a 25% reduction of their own cause of taking it prior to FRA. At 66, they switch to the maximum survivor benefit of the original $2,200 and receive this amount for the rest of their life, plus the annual COLA. 

Now there are a lot of calculations involved, but the second scenario would be more beneficial in total dollars and monthly benefit amount if the widow lives to age 75 in this situation. That is what’s called the break even. So basically, if they live past age 75, they are better off in the second scenario and vice versa if not. 

These can be very complicated calculations so it might be beneficial to use a combination of a financial professional and the use of social security calculators to help make this determination. 

Will it always be beneficial long term to take benefits as soon as possible?

Many times, people assume that taking benefits as early as possible is the best course of action, but they could be permanently reducing their benefits by starting at age 60 or 62. We say this all the time, that is a giant math problem and you have do the math. 

Social Security is a complex system and there are many different ways to claim benefits. Like stated previously, before you make a decision, sit down with someone who is knowledgeable about Social Security to help you work out the math and see what options are available, and which one might be the best for your individual situation. 

How does it work if someone is still earning wages from work and claiming benefits? 

This is called the Social Security Earnings Test. If someone is working at full salary, some or all their benefit may be withheld while they are under that Full Retirement Age. Now this is not a reason to stop working, but it may be a reason to wait until FRA to apply for benefits, when the earnings test no longer applies.

How could remarriage affect the ability to claim survivors’ benefits?

If remarriage happens after age 60, then it will not affect any survivors’ benefits to which the widow is entitled. They could remarry at age 60 and still get the survivors benefit at 66. They would be able to choose between the survivor benefit from the previous marriage and the current spousal benefit from the current husband. Since survivor’s benefits are 100% of the deceased’s PIA and spousal benefits max out at 50%, the survivor benefit is likely to be higher. So, you want to make sure you compare both.  

What else should people remember when it comes to survivors’ benefits?

Remember that Social Security benefits are gender neutral. This means widowers can be men on their deceased spouse’s earnings record – something men might not think to ask about. Also, the same rules apply if a divorced person's ex-spouse is deceased, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years and the person is either unmarried or if they remarried after the age of 60. 

Again, there are a lot of rules and situations that could affect your benefit, and everyone is in a different situation. So talk with someone who understands you and can help you make an informed decision best for you and your family. 


Dan Miller, Kaleb Robuck and Marcus Taylor are investment adviser representatives of, and securities and advisory services are offered through, USA Financial Securities Corp. Member FINRA/SIPC. A Registered