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Social Security Strategies If You're Widowed

A survivor benefit is worth up to 100% of a deceased spouse's benefit.

You're eligible for a survivor benefit based on your deceased spouse's earnings. You can claim this benefit as early as age 60, or 50 if you're totally disabled. The amount is based on your late 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 due at your late spouse's full retirement age.

Most widows receive a higher payment by claiming their husband's monthly benefit instead of their own, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. And the age a husband chooses to start collecting his own benefit can have a significant impact on the widow's ultimate survivor benefit. Just as the husband's payout grows 76% by delaying from age 62 to age 70, so does the widow's survivor benefit. "I don't think there's enough emphasis on how important that survivor benefit is, especially for women, because women tend to live longer than men," says Judith Ward, a certified financial planner for T. Rowe Price.

In order for you to receive 100% of your late spouse's benefit, you must wait until your full retirement age to claim it. Otherwise, it will be reduced by a certain amount for each month you file your claim before your full retirement age. Remarriage won't affect survivor benefits as long as you're 60 or older when you remarry.

Don't ignore your own benefits, though. If you expect to live a long time, it might make sense to take survivor benefits, even if they're smaller than your own, so your own benefits can continue to grow. Once you reach age 70, you can switch to your own benefit, which will have been enhanced by the delayed-retirement credits.

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