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Social Security Benefits for Your Spouse If You Die Early

Here's how to determine the survivor benefit calculation.

Last month, we spelled out how widows and widowers can mix and match their own benefit with a survivor benefit to boost their lifetime income (see our story Boost Benefits for a Surviving Spouse). But what happens if your spouse dies years before the age for claiming Social Security?

Retirement Report reader Michelle McIntosh of Lilburn, Ga., is in that boat: Her husband died at age 49, 13 years before he could have claimed a retirement benefit. Now about to turn 62 herself, McIntosh says she received conflicting information in recent years as to the amount of her survivor benefit. "It's not addressed very clearly anywhere I could find," she says.

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Typically in such cases, the survivor benefit is calculated as if the deceased spouse had reached full retirement age. But unlike the retirement benefit, which is based on the worker's highest 35 years of earnings, the survivor benefit calculation may use fewer years of earnings because the worker's shortened life span is taken into account, according to Jim Blair, a former district manager for an Ohio Social Security office and a partner at Premier Social Security Consulting, in Sharonville, Ohio. For instance, the survivor benefit from a 50-year-old who died fully insured would be based on the deceased worker's highest 23 years of earnings.

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On the deceased worker's most recent annual Social Security statement prior to his death, the estimate showing what he was due at full retirement age is a close approximation to what a surviving spouse will receive--if the survivor takes that benefit at full retirement age. The survivor can take the benefit as early as age 60 (or as early as age 50, if disabled), but the benefit will be reduced if claimed before full retirement age.

Another factor: remarriage. If a surviving spouse remarries before age 60, he or she can't claim a survivor benefit unless the second marriage ends. If a widow or widower remarries at age 60 or later, the surviving spouse can take the survivor benefit.

McIntosh resolved her issue during an appointment with Social Security to talk specifically about survivor benefits. After pinpointing the amount, she decided her best strategy is to take the survivor benefit at her full retirement age. In the meantime, she'll claim a benefit based on her work record this fall.

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