retirement

Social Security Tip: Claiming Benefits After a Death

Surviving spouses have a choice between survivor benefits and benefits based on their own work history.

Am I eligible for my husband’s Social Security benefits if he dies after he starts to receive them?

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You’ll be eligible for a survivor benefit based on his earnings whether or not he has started to receive Social Security checks when he dies. You’ll have the option to either claim survivor benefits or take benefits based on your own work history. You can’t, however, take both benefits at the same time.

If your husband dies after he has already claimed Social Security benefits, your maximum survivor benefit will be the amount he was receiving – whether he took reduced early benefits, full retirement benefits, or benefits after full retirement age (which increased his benefits by 8% for every year he waited until age 70). The longer he waited to take benefits, the larger the maximum survivor benefit would be.

The size of the survivor benefit is also based on the age you take those benefits. You will be eligible for the full amount he was receiving if you take the survivor benefit at your full retirement age (currently 66) or older. You can take survivor benefits as early as age 60, but the amount will be reduced based on the number of months remaining before your full retirement age. For example, if your husband had been receiving a monthly Social Security benefit of $1,000 and you elect to take survivor benefits at age 62 rather than at your full retirement age of 66, then your monthly survivor benefit will be $810 rather than the $1,000 you would have received if you had waited until age 66. (There are special rules if you are disabled or if you are caring for a child younger than age 16.)

If your husband dies before full retirement age but had not yet claimed Social Security benefits, the survivor benefit will be based on the amount he would have received at his full retirement age. If he is older than full retirement age but had waited to sign up for Social Security so that he could earn delayed-retirement credits, the survivor benefits will be based on the amount he was eligible to receive at the time of his death.

Remember that the most you can get as a survivor is the benefit your husband had actually been receiving (or would have received at the time of his death). If he had taken reduced benefits before full retirement age, the maximum you can receive will be based on his reduced benefits.

If you qualify for benefits based on your own work history, you can take survivor benefits anytime after age 60, then switch to your own benefits later on. For example, you could take survivor benefits and let your own benefits grow to the maximum at age 70, then switch to your own benefits if they are higher. If your spouse dies after you start receiving your own benefits, you can switch to the survivor benefits if they are higher.

For more information about survivor benefits, see the Social Security Survivors Planner and Social Security Survivors Benefits.

See Our Slide Show: 9 Costly Social Security Mistakes

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