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.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

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.

BEST STRATEGIES FOR: Singles | Married Couples | Divorced

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.