One of the trickiest — and most critical — Social Security planning strategies applies to widows who are between the ages of 60 and 70. Once a widow becomes eligible for survivor benefits — as early as age 60 (50 if disabled) — she will be looking for guidance on how and when to start her benefit. If she also qualifies for Social Security on her own work record, she will be wondering how that fits into the mix. If she’s still working, she may wonder if she’ll be “penalized” for earning too much. If she’s thinking about remarrying, she may ask how the remarriage will affect her survivor benefit. The most important thing I can say here is that it is crucial to know the rules before they make their first appointment with SSA they are prepared for what to expect. (I use one gender here, but remember that the rules apply to widowers too.)
There are mixed stories of how widows’ cases are handled by SSA. In some cases the worker provides a comprehensive matrix showing the amount of the survivor benefit if claimed at the various ages (60 to Full Retirement Age (FRA), which is stated on your Social Security statement) along with the widow’s own retirement benefit if claimed at the various ages (62 to 70). The matrix is informative if you know how to read it, but the numbers are laid out in a confusing way and in the end it does not suggest a clear strategy. I’ve also heard of workers encouraging widows to start their survivor benefit at age 60, even when that would cause the benefit to be reduced by 28.5% and would not be in their best interests in the long run. I’ve heard of workers telling widows who also qualify for a retirement benefit on their own record that they can only get one or the other (i.e., the switching strategy* that is so beneficial for widows is never mentioned). There are reports of SSA workers telling widows they can’t get survivor benefits if they are under FRA and working — rather than explaining how the earnings test works, they simply say the widow must wait until FRA to start the benefit. And in cases where the survivor benefit is higher than the widow’s own retirement benefit, I’ve seen it where the worker takes an application for both, locking in a permanent reduction for both benefits and negating any future switching* strategies.
*Widows and widowers (i.e., survivors and survivors of ex’s) retain the option of claiming either the widow(er) benefit or their own retirement benefit. There is no deeming. Which one you claim first? In general, claim the lower one first and the higher one later. The exception to this rule would be health prognosis.
First, you’ll want to explain the rules as they pertain to a widow.
- If her husband died during the marriage — or if her ex-spouse to whom she was married over 10 years died after the divorce — she becomes eligible for a survivor benefit based on her former spouse’s earnings record as early as age 60 (50 if disabled).
- Once the spouse has died and the survivor benefit is set, the amount the widow will actually receive is based on the age SHE is when she applies for it; the deceased spouse’s age is not relevant. She will receive the most if she applies for it at her FRA. It does not build delayed credits after FRA.
- If she starts the survivor benefit at age 60 (50 if disabled), the benefit will be reduced to 71.5% of the full amount. To get the full amount, she must apply for it at her full retirement age. If she applies between the ages of 60 and FRA, the reduction will be prorated.
Percentage of full survivor benefit based on claiming age
(born between 1945 and 1956)*
(born in 1962 or later)*
*The birth years that determine FRA for survivor benefits is different by two years than for retirement benefits.
- If she is receiving a spousal benefit when her husband dies, the spousal benefit will stop. SSA might automatically convert the spousal benefit to a survivor benefit. If she is under FRA she does not have to take a reduced survivor benefit. She can tell SSA she wants to wait until FRA to start it. However, she may no longer receive a spousal benefit, so this would mean going without that income until she turns FRA.
- To receive a survivor benefit or divorced-spouse survivor benefit she must be unmarried or, if she has remarried, the remarriage must have taken place after age 60.
- If she also qualifies for a retirement benefit on her own work record, she may be able to take advantage of both benefits, but at different times (see below).
- If she is under FRA and working, all benefits are subject to the earnings test: $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $2 earned over the annual threshold, which is $16,920 in 2017 (See this chart for later years). This doesn’t necessarily mean she shouldn’t work or shouldn’t apply for benefits; more analysis is called for (see below).
Survivor benefits are easy to understand when the husband is receiving his benefit when he dies and the wife is over full retirement age. The survivor benefit will be the amount the husband is receiving at his death. (If he is receiving less than 82.5% of his PIA, the survivor benefit will be increased to that amount.) All that’s needed here is for her to step up to the survivor benefit if it’s higher than the benefit she is currently receiving (whether it’s a spousal benefit or her own retirement benefit). When she switches to the survivor benefit, her own benefit will stop. Planning revolves around the loss of this income and maintaining the widow’s standard of living through life insurance or some other instrument (such as using a reverse mortgage if there is equity in the home, assuming there is one).
If the wife is under FRA when her husband dies, she has a choice about when to start the survivor benefit. If she’s over 60 she can start a reduced benefit right away or wait until she turns FRA to get the full benefit. Now she can bring her own retirement benefit into the mix. She may have been delaying her own benefit in order to maximize it, but if she knows she’ll be taking the survivor benefit at FRA, she might go ahead and start her retirement benefit as early as age 62. It will be reduced, but that’s OK because she will be switching. But here’s the caveat: if she is a high earner, and if her own benefit with delayed credits would exceed the survivor benefit, she should delay her own benefit to age 70. In that case she can start the reduced survivor benefit as early as age 60. If she makes the mistake of taking her own benefit at 62, she will be locking in a permanent reduction and will miss out on all the delayed credits.
Here are two examples. In the first, the survivor benefit is higher than the widow’s own benefit will ever be. In the second, it’s reversed; if the widow delays her own benefit to age 70, she’ll end up with a higher amount than the survivor benefit. Once you have identified the highest potential benefit — by comparing the survivor benefit if taken at FRA to the retirement benefit if taken at 70 — you want to preserve that benefit by taking it at the maximization age. With that stake in the ground you can advise the widow to go ahead and start the other benefit as early as possible even though it will be reduced.
Teresa is a 60-year-old widow who was married to a high earner who died before starting benefits. According to his latest Social Security statement, his PIA was $2,600. Teresa also worked and has a PIA of $1,200. If Teresa takes the survivor benefit at FRA she will get $2,600. If she starts her own benefit at 70, she will get $1,584 ($1,200 x 1.32). The survivor benefit is higher, so she will hold out until FRA to take it (despite what her SSA worker might tell her). When she turns 62 she can start her own reduced retirement benefit, receiving $900 a month ($1,200 x .75) until she switches to the $2,600 survivor benefit at 66 and 4 months.
Sophie is a 60-year-old widow with a high earnings record. Her deceased husband’s PIA was $2,600. Sophie’s own PIA is $2,400. If she starts her own benefit at 70, she’ll get $3,168 ($2,400 x 1.32), so that’s what she plans to do. In the meantime, she can receive the survivor benefit. If she starts it at age 60, she’ll get $1,859 ($2,600 x .715) per month until age 70, when she will switch to the $3,168.
The calculation takes into account the widow’s age, her own PIA, and the amount of the original survivor benefit — that is, the amount she would receive if she applied for it at her FRA. The easiest way for a widow to get the survivor benefit estimate is to refer to the deceased spouse’s latest Social Security statement. If this is not available she can call SSA.
Some instances point out how important it is to follow up on the strategy. If she takes her survivor benefit at 60, but then forgets to switch over to her own benefit at 70, she could be giving up additional benefits. Now, at some point SSA would probably notify her that she could increase her benefit by switching over to her own retirement benefit. But here’s the thing: they would probably do it at her full retirement age, not age 70. This was Elaine’s** own experience. “I had filed for my divorced-spouse benefit at 66, which converted to a divorced-spouse survivor benefit a year later when my ex-husband died. My plan, of course, was to take my own benefit at 70. Shortly after I started receiving the divorced-spouse survivor benefit I got a letter from SSA telling me I could receive more if I switched to my own retirement benefit. This would have deprived me of many thousands of dollars in delayed credits over my lifetime. You have to stay on top of these things.”
How to apply
The claiming strategy will determine the application process. If the client is applying for her own retirement benefit (Teresa, in the above example), she can do so online. It will be a straight application for retirement benefits. Since she also qualifies for survivor benefits, she will have to make it clear that she is not applying for the survivor benefit at this time. She can make this intention known in the comments section of the online application and also during the follow-up call from Social Security.
If the widow is first applying for the survivor benefit and letting her own benefit grow to age 70 (Sophie), she will need to make an appointment at her local Social Security office to apply for survivor benefits. It is not possible to apply for survivor benefits online. Furthermore, she will need to tell the worker that she is restricting the scope of her application to the survivor benefit. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 did not change the rules for survivor benefits. It is still possible for a widow who is eligible for both survivor benefits and retirement benefits to file a restricted application in order to receive one benefit while the other benefit grows. If she gets any pushback from the Social Security worker, she can show them this reference: GN 00204.020 Scope of the Application. Section E explains how to file for the survivor benefit (WIB) and exclude the retirement benefit (RIB), the process Sophie would use. The language she should use is, “I do not wish this application to be considered an application for retirement benefits on my own earning’s record.”
What about the earnings test?
It’s hard to estimate the withholding and the recomputation of benefits at FRA. The earnings test is a huge hassle, so we generally recommend that clients wait until they stop working or turn FRA to file.
But in the cases we’re talking about here, if a widow fails to take one of the benefits before FRA, she may not ever be able to take advantage of it because she’ll be switching. For example, if Teresa, who will be taking her full survivor benefit at FRA, fails to take her own benefit from age 62 to 66, she will never be able to take it. So unless all of her benefits would be withheld for the earnings test, she might as well apply and get something. Here’s how to estimate it. Take the annual benefit amount, multiply times 2 and add $16,920 (for 2017. See this table for the value to add in future years). If annual earnings are above this amount, all benefits would be withheld. Teresa’s benefit would be $900 per month or $10,800 a year. Multiplying times 2 and adding $16,920 (for 2017. See this table for the value to add in future years), it comes out to $38,520. If Teresa will earn more than $38,520 there would be no point in applying before FRA because all of her benefits would be withheld. But if she earns any amount less than $38,520 and would get even one check, it’s probably worth applying because she’ll be switching to the higher survivor benefit at FRA.
It helps to have the spouse’s Social Security number (from an old tax return?); otherwise SSA can look him up based on his name, birth-date, place of residence, and as much other information as the widow(er) can provide. If she has outlived two husbands or ex-husbands she can sequence those survivor benefits, perhaps taking one at a reduced rate at 60 and switching to the other one at FRA. SSA can help with these complicated situations. She will need the marriage certificate and death certificate to show the dates of marriage and prove the spouse’s death (SSA probably already has that on file). Documents can be obtained from VitalChek for a modest fee.
There are other events in life that should be considered too such as divorces and/or remarriages.
- Survivors Planner: How Much Would Your Benefit Be?
- Social Security Benefit Amounts For The Surviving Spouse By Year Of Birth
- Survivors Planner: If You Are The Survivor
- Survivors Planner: How You Apply
**I wish to thank Elaine Floyd, CFP®, Director, Retirement and Life Planning
Horsesmouth, LLC for writing this as an adviser newsletter. I’ve edited it to be that of a client perspective with additional links for further explanation, rather than that of an adviser’s as originally written.