Home > Retirement > The Widow or Widower’s Guide to Social Security Benefits

Comments 23 Comments
Advertiser Disclosure

Disclaimer

The loss of a spouse is devastating, and in that situation, the last thing you want to worry about is money. Unfortunately, as a widow or widower, money is often one of the most important things to think about. And Social Security benefits are usually one of the first—and trickiest—financial resources to navigate. To help you wade through these waters, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to Social Security survivors benefits.

The Breakdown of Social Security Benefits

If you’re an eligible age and meet other qualifications, Social Security benefits are available to you after your spouse passes away. But it can be tough figuring out if you can receive these benefits and when you should start. Here are some of the main factors that impact how much survivors benefits you’re entitled to:

  • The length of the marriage
  • Your age and your spouse’s age
  • When you want to start receiving benefits

Understanding these factors and the rules to which they apply can help you make informed decisions and maximize your benefits payments.

The Length of the Marriage Matters

In nearly every case, you need to have been married for at least nine months to claim Social Security survivors benefits. However, there are a few exceptions:

  • You share a child. If you were married fewer than nine months but your spouse was the parent of your child, you can claim survivors benefits.
  • It was an accident. Accidental death can waive the nine-month requirement for Social Security benefits.
  • Military service. If your spouse dies in the line of active duty for the military, you are entitled to survivors benefits.

What if you were married more than nine months and later divorced? Surprisingly, you can receive survivors benefits from an ex-spouse if you were married for at least 10 years. In fact, if you were married for at least 10 years to more than one ex-spouse who is now deceased, you can choose the biggest benefit. But if you remarried before the age of 60 and are still married, you cannot receive these benefits.

Also, any amount you do receive may be shared with other family members who are also entitled to survivors benefits.

The Impact of Age

We all know that there are age requirements for collecting Social Security benefits, and those rules remain intact for survivors benefits. Survivors benefits are first available when you turn 60, but you stand to collect more benefits if you wait until full retirement age at 66 (if you were born before 1957) or 67 (if you were born in 1957 or later). Here’s a look at how age affects your Social Security survivors benefits:

  • Receiving benefits at age 60. If you start collecting Social Security benefits at age 60, you will receive only 60% of the full benefit.
  • Receiving benefits at full retirement age. If you can afford to wait until you’re 66 or 67, you can collect 100% of the benefits available.
  • Deferring benefits until age 70. After you reach full retirement age, you can elect to defer your benefits until age 70. This lets you accrue delayed retirement credits, which could increase your benefits payments.
  • Receiving benefits with a disability. If you are disabled, you can start collecting benefits at age 50. But the disability must have started before or within seven years of your spouse’s passing.

If you don’t need Social Security benefits right away to stay financially sound during retirement, consider waiting as long as possible for the most benefits.

The Decision of When to Start Collecting Benefits

Because the benefits payment increases with time, it’s smart to look at your budget and determine if you need to start collecting benefits immediately. Another important thing to note is that you can only collect one Social Security benefit—your spouse’s or your own. But you can switch from one to the other.

If you are still working, or plan to work until full retirement age, consider taking your spouse’s survivors benefits when they are available and then switching to your full benefits when you retire. This can get tricky, though, so it’s important to pay attention to a few financial areas:

  • Watch your paycheck. If you have yet to retire and are working and collecting survivors benefits, pay attention to your annual income. If you earn over a certain level, Social Security will withhold part of your benefits.
  • Keep taxes in mind. You may end up paying taxes on a much larger portion of your benefits if you work while collecting Social Security benefits.
  • Note who was the higher earner. Because the higher earner will have the larger Social Security benefit payout, determine which benefits will ultimately pay you more over the remainder of your life. If you are the higher earner, it’s smart to tap into survivors benefits as soon as possible and make the switch when you’re eligible for your own benefits at full retirement age. If your spouse earned more, think about collecting your benefits (even at a reduced rate), and then switching to survivors benefits when you reach full retirement age.

Sorting through the ins and outs of Social Security survivors benefits isn’t easy, especially after suffering the loss of your spouse. But a solid understanding of what you can receive and how to maximize those benefits can make your transition to single living somewhat easier. Before making any decisions, you should consult an expert—either a Social Security representative or a financial planner you trust. They can guide you through all the regulations and paperwork to make sure you’re taken care of.

Image: sturti

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Credit.com receives compensation for the financial products and services advertised on this site if our users apply for and sign up for any of them.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.



Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team