Social Security Strategies to Help Widows Replace Lost Income

Survivors benefits can help younger and older widows make ends meet, and there could be more than one claim option available. And the stakes are high!

A recent widow looks online for Social Security strategies for widows to help replace lost income.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Many women face financial difficulties after the death of a spouse, but there are Social Security claim strategies for widows that can help them be less financially vulnerable.

After losing your spouse, dealing with the sorrow alone can be overwhelming. Add financial questions and concerns, and it can become unbearable. This was the case for Cindy, age 48. Since Cindy’s husband died in January 2021 from a sudden heart attack, she has been managing without the love of her life and also without his income, leaving her fraught with financial fears.

Jon, her husband, was the sole breadwinner, and his income easily supported the entire family, including their two daughters, ages 14 and 17. Cindy and Jon did have life insurance, but even with the life insurance proceeds, Cindy was in the position of having to reenter the workforce with less than ideal prospects, since she had not worked as a lawyer for over 15 years. She found herself wishing that she had been more involved in the finances and that they had been better prepared financially.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%
https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/flexiimages/xrd7fjmf8g1657008683.png

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

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

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

Sign up

Cindy is not alone. The household income for widows typically declines 37% after a spouse dies, and assets of widows also tend to fall substantially more than those of men who lose their spouse.

It’s Not Just Younger Widows Looking at Social Security Options

Older widows also see significant income loss after the death of their spouse. Janet, 72, was married to Ted for over 40 years, and when Ted passed away five years ago after a long battle with cancer, Janet’s income immediately dropped. The Social Security income coming into Janet’s household was cut by a third, and Ted’s pension benefit from his previous employer ended as well.

Unfortunately, Janet and Ted had not selected a joint-and-survivor pension payout, which would have provided continued benefit payments to a surviving spouse for their lifetime.

Janet was forced to sell their family home and downsize to a small condo in their neighborhood. Losing the love of her life was already traumatic, and having to sell the home that held so many memories of Ted and her kids growing up nearly pushed her over the edge.

Researchers found that Janet’s situation is more common than one might think. Research from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave (opens in new tab) found that 53% of widows surveyed said they and their spouse did not have a plan for what would happen if one of them passed away. Janet and Ted had never discussed the different pension benefit payment options and how she would survive without his income.

‘Getting the Most Out of Social Security Is Crucial’

According to Natalie Colley, CFP®, CDFA® and a lead financial adviser with Francis Financial (opens in new tab) who specializes in working with widows, “For women who have suffered the death of a spouse, getting the most out of Social Security is crucial. Now that you are no longer receiving income from your spouse, Social Security benefits will most likely make up a much larger share of your retirement income. However, most women don’t fully understand the confusing Social Security payout options which would enable them to fully maximize this benefit.”

Let’s Look More Closely at Cindy’s Social Security Situation

Cindy started immediately interviewing wealth managers and knew that it was important that the adviser put the client’s interest above their own and be transparent with their fees. She ended up hiring Colley because of her expertise in working with widows like her, in addition to Colley being a fiduciary and fee-only adviser. Colley explained that Cindy and her family would be eligible for income from Social Security.

As many as 6 million Americans rely on Social Security survivors benefits (opens in new tab) to replace lost income from a parent or spouse who has passed away. Young widows like Cindy might be eligible for two Social Security income benefits:

Child survivors benefits. According to the Social Security Administration, if the decedent had children under age 18, their kids will most likely be entitled to receive Social Security child benefits (opens in new tab). These benefits can extend to age 19 and 2 months if the child is in school full time in 12th grade or below. The payments also can extend until age 22 if the child has a disability that occurred before age 22.

Children who typically qualify are biological and adopted children of the decedent. In certain circumstances, a stepchild, grandchild or stepgrandchild also qualify.

A child can receive up to 75% of their deceased parent’s retirement benefit. However, there is a limit that Social Security put in place that caps the total amount a family can receive on the late parent’s record. It can vary from 150% to 188% of the decedent’s full retirement age benefit amount. This cap typically comes into play if there are numerous children collecting payments. Each child’s benefit will be reduced proportionately to comply with the maximum benefit amount.

Mother’s or father’s survivors benefits. A spouse caring for the children of a deceased worker is entitled to survivors benefits until the youngest of those children turns 16. So, if your spouse passes away, and you have children dependent on you who are under age 16, you may qualify for a benefit (opens in new tab). However, once your youngest child celebrates their 16th birthday, your benefit will stop.

Cindy’s Social Security Strategy

Cindy collected the income paid to each of her daughters and used this to pay for everyday expenses and increase their savings for college by opening a 529 college savings plan in her state of New York. The average child benefit in New York is $947 a month, and these funds were instrumental in helping Cindy bridge the income gap left by her husband’s death.

Cindy also understood that saving for her own retirement was more important than ever. Cindy received a benefit of $1,042 a month until her youngest reached her 16th birthday. Cindy used this money for living expenses so that she could contribute to her employer’s 401(k) plan and received the full match that they offered, which was 100% of every dollar Cindy contributed up to $6,000 a year.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at Janet’s Social Security Situation

Janet reached out to Colley as well, on the recommendation of a dear friend who had also suffered the loss of her husband. Janet had many questions about her financial future, and a large part of this was regarding Social Security and whether her benefits would change now that Ted had died.

Colley explained that the requirement to receive the survivors benefits was that you must have been married to your spouse for nine months. A widow can claim as early as age 60 (50 if she is disabled), but her benefit will be reduced permanently for each month she claims before her full retirement age (FRA). Her benefit is based on how much her spouse was receiving in Social Security income. Widows are eligible for 100% of the decedent’s Social Security benefit when they reach their full retirement age.

What Is My Full Retirement Age?

It can be confusing to know what your full retirement age is, as it is different for most people and is based on the year that you were born:

  • 1943-1954: FRA is age 66.
  • 1955-1959: FRA increases by two months every year from 1955 through 1959.
  • 1960 or later: FRA is 67.

Janet’s Social Security Strategy

Janet applied for Social Security when she was 62, based on Ted’s earning record. Janet did work for several years during her career, but 100% of her own Social Security income ($1,216 a month) was less than the 50% of her husband’s benefit ($1,541 a month) that she was entitled to.

Nearly five years later, when Janet was 67, Ted passed away, and she applied for Social Security survivors benefits. Janet is eligible for 100% of Ted’s retirement benefit ($3,082 a month) because she has reached her full retirement age. However, Janet was no longer able to collect the spousal benefit once she switched over to the survivors benefit.

“The Social Security Administration is an important safety net for Americans,” Colley shared. “However, they are not in the business of making people wealthy. As such, Janet is not allowed to collect both the spousal and survivors benefit. Janet must pick the more lucrative of the two.”

For others, it may make financial sense to collect the reduced Social Security survivors benefit as early as possible at age 60 and switch to their own retirement benefit anytime from age 62, when you are first eligible, until age 70, when the benefit amount stops increasing. For each year a beneficiary postpones claiming between their full retirement age and 70, the benefit rises 8%.

Colley advises, “For those widows who worked and are eligible for their own retirement benefits, it is important to investigate whether they can claim the survivors benefit and allow their own Social Security benefit to increase until its maximum amount at age 70. Once she is 70, it might make sense to switch from the survivors benefit to her own. We have complex software that allows us to model out the most beneficial Social Security strategy so that our clients know exactly what benefit they should take and when.”

Social Security claim strategies are not straightforward, and Colley highly recommends that widows hire a financial adviser with this expertise. “A widow’s income may only be two-thirds of what it was prior to their spouse’s passing. The stakes are high.” 

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC (opens in new tab) or with FINRA (opens in new tab).

Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA®, CES™
President & CEO, Francis Financial Inc.

Stacy is a nationally recognized financial expert and the President and CEO of Francis Financial Inc. (opens in new tab), which she founded 15 years ago. She is a Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®) and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) who provides advice to women going through transitions, such as divorce, widowhood and sudden wealth. She is also the founder of Savvy Ladies™, a nonprofit that has provided free personal finance education and resources to over 15,000 women.