Social Security: Deciding Which Benefit a Survivor Should Take

Let’s face it: Deciding when to draw Social Security benefits is not always an easy matter. It doesn’t get any easier when one spouse dies. On top of grief and family upheaval, a surviving spouse must choose whether to take his or her own monthly benefit or 100 percent of the late spouse’s monthly benefit.

There are a variety of factors to consider. The first is simple. If the surviving spouse is age 70 or older, the best option is to take the larger of the two benefits. If the survivor is under age 70, it may be worth considering taking one benefit now and then switching to the other when he or she reaches age 70. This is because the longer you delay taking benefits, the greater the amount received — at least up until age 70.1

Starting at age 62, which is the first year a beneficiary is eligible to begin benefits, the payout is about 8 percent less per year than if waiting until full retirement age (FRA). Also, if the beneficiary delays taking benefits after FRA, the amount will increase by about 8 percent every year until he or she turns 70.2

For this reason, married people may have different options for survivors’ benefits. To help illustrate these choices, consider the following hypothetical example.

Mike and Ann are both 66 years old when Mike dies. Mike had begun taking his benefits at FRA and received $2,200 a month. Ann, who had not started taking benefits yet, now has two choices: She can begin her own benefit, which amounts to $2,000 a month, or she can take 100 percent of Mike’s benefit at $2,200 a month. There are two good reasons to take Mike’s benefit. First, she gets $200 more a month. But perhaps more important, by delaying her own benefit, it will accrue by 8 percent a year. Once she turns age 70, Ann can switch and begin taking her own benefit, which at that time will have grown to $2,640 a month. Not only will she receive more money, but she’ll benefit from larger cost-of-living adjustments, potentially each year, on the higher amount.3

Let’s look at a different scenario. Say Mike died at age 66, but he was the lower income earner. If he was receiving only $1,500 a month in Social Security benefits, Ann would get $500 a month more by starting her own $2,000 monthly benefit. But let’s say she doesn’t need that extra money right now. By waiting until she turns age 70 and then switching to her own benefit, Ann would increase her permanent income to $2,640.4

When considering the options in the second scenario, note that the value of the two benefits ultimately depends on Ann’s life expectancy. If she’s in poor health, she may be better off taking her own, higher benefit. However, as long as Ann lives to at least 73 years and two months, she will cumulatively earn a higher lifetime benefit by waiting until age 70 to switch to her own benefit.5

Clearly, deciding which Social Security strategy to pursue can be complex, as it will vary depending on the surviving spouse’s age, life expectancy and the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) formula that the Social Security Administration uses to determine benefits for each spouse. It’s a good idea to work with a financial professional who has experience with Social Security benefit strategies when making decisions regarding survivor benefits. Note that the Social Security Administration does not contact survivors to make them aware of these options and offer guidance.

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This content is provided for informational purposes only. It is provided by third parties and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. The information is not intended to be used as the sole basis for financial decisions, nor should it be construed as advice designed to meet the particular needs of an individual’s situation.We are not affiliated with any government agency including the Social Security Administration.

1 Mark Miller. Reuters. May 19, 2016. “Column: How to get the most from Social Security’s survivor benefit.” Accessed Nov. 6, 2017.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

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