Social Security Strategies If a Spouse Dies

Claiming survivor benefits after losing a spouse can ease the financial loss.

Losing a spouse is traumatic enough without worrying about whether you'll be able to pay the bills. That's why it's important to understand how to get the most from Social Security survivor benefits.

As a widow or widower, you're eligible for a survivor benefit based on your spouse's earnings. You can claim this benefit as early as age 60, or 50 if you're totally disabled.

The amount of your benefit will be based on your spouse's benefit when he or she died. If your spouse died before claiming Social Security, the benefit will be based on 100% of the amount your spouse would have received at full retirement age. While times are changing, most widows receive a higher payment by switching to their late husbands' benefit. Remarriage won't affect your benefits as long as you're 60 or older when you remarry.

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When you claim spousal benefits can have a significant impact on the amount you'll receive. To receive 100% of your late spouse's benefit, you must wait until you reach full retirement age to claim it. Otherwise, your benefit will be reduced by a certain amount for each month you file your claim before full retirement age.

Even if your own benefits are larger, you may be able to use survivor benefits to improve your long-term financial security. If you expect to live for a long time, based on your health and family history, claiming survivor benefits will allow your own benefits to earn delayed retirement credits during the years between your full retirement age and age 70. Once you reach age 70, you can switch to your own higher benefits.

Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.