Intricacies of Social Security Survivor Benefits

One of the advantages of the Social Security system is the Survivor Benefit. Of the 65 million people receiving Social Security, approximately 6 million receive the Survivor Benefit because they are the widow, widower, surviving ex-spouse, minor children or permanently disabled adult children of a deceased worker. The amount received is based on the deceased worker’s earnings history.

Switching benefits

The Survivor Benefit is most often associated with an elderly surviving spouse. That spouse may be receiving a Social Security retirement benefit based on their own work history or a spousal retirement benefit, one or the other. You cannot receive both at the same time.

But when a spouse dies, the survivor can switch to the Survivor Benefit and receive what the deceased was drawing at the time of their death if that amount is more than what the survivor had been receiving and the survivor has reached their Full Retirement Age (FRA).

For example, if the surviving spouse was receiving $1,000 per month and the deceased got $2,000, the surviving spouse can switch to the Survivor Benefit and receive $2,000 per month. The $1,000, however, goes away.

Survivor age determines the Survivor Benefit payout

Surviving spouses can claim the Survivor Benefit at age 60, two years earlier than the allowable age to claim Social Security retirement benefits. But choosing the Survivor Benefit early means a reduced payout. At age 60, the benefit will be 71.5% of what the deceased worker was receiving compared to 100% if the survivor wanted until their Full Retirement Age to claim the Survivor Benefit.

Deceased’s benefit election determines payout

If the deceased spouse began receiving Social Security before their Full Retirement Age, they were already receiving a reduced benefit, therefore, the surviving spouse will receive a reduced Survivor Benefit. If the survivor waits until their FRA to claim the Survivor Benefit, they will receive the higher of what the deceased was receiving at the time of death or 82.5% of the worker’s full benefit.

If, on the other hand, the deceased spouse waited until age 70 to begin benefits they would be receiving the full amount they were eligible for at Full Retirement Age plus delayed credits, which increase the Social Security benefit by 8% per year between FRA and age 70. In this scenario, if the survivor waits until their FRA to claim the Survivor Benefit, they will receive 100% of what the deceased was receiving at the time of death, which includes the delayed credits.

Full Retirement Age may be different for Survivor Benefits

The age at which you can receive 100% of your Social Security retirement benefit may be different than the age for receiving 100% of the Survivor Benefit. For example, if you were born in 1956 you have to be 66 and 4 months old to receive 100% of your retirement benefit. But to receive 100% of a Survivor benefit, you only have to be 66.

Different rules for caregiving survivors

Surviving spouses of any age with children under 16, receive a Survivor Benefit equal to 75% of the deceased worker’s benefit amount. Your benefit stops when the youngest child reaches age 16. If the child is disabled, your benefits can continue if you exercise parental control and responsibility for a mentally disabled child. Your benefits can also continue if you perform personal services for a child who’s physically disabled.

 Each child receives 75% of the deceased worker’s benefit. The payment stops when the child reaches 18 unless they are a full-time student. Then, payments continue until the child graduates high school or two months after they turn 19, whichever comes first. 

If your child is disabled, benefits will continue to age 18. Childhood disability benefits are also payable after reaching age 18 if the disability began before age 22. Permanently disabled adult children and their caregiving parent can collect survivor benefits for the rest of their lives.

Social Security sets a maximum to how much a family can receive in Survivor Benefits. It ranges from 150% to 180% of the deceased worker’s benefit amount.

Blackout period

When the youngest child turns 16, the surviving spouse’s benefit is turned off and the spouse enters a blackout period that lasts until they turn 60. At that point the surviving spouse can turn the Survivor Benefit back on. The amount received depends on what age they reclaim the benefit. If the benefit is restarted at the earliest age of 60 you receive71.5% of the deceased worker’s benefit and it increases incrementally to 100% if you wait until your Full Retirement Age to claim the benefit.

Earnings restrictions

Survivor benefits, just like every type of Social Security benefit, is subject to earnings restrictions. That means that until you reach Full Retirement Age, if you work and earn more than Social Security allows, you lose part of the benefit.

In 2021, if you earn more than $18,960, Social Security will take back $1 for every $2 you earn above the earnings threshold. Once you reach Full Retirement Age, the restriction goes away and you can earn as much as you want with no reduction of benefits.

Divorce and remarriage

If you’re divorced, you may be eligible for the Survivor Benefit based on your deceased ex’s work history. You have to be 60 years old or older (50-59 if disabled) and you were married at least 10 years.

What does remarriage to do eligibility? Remarrying after turning 60 (50 if disabled) has no effect on survivor benefits based on your deceased ex’s Social Security record. But if you wed before reaching that age, you lose eligibility for survivor benefits on the prior marriage. (If you were already getting them, they will stop.) You regain eligibility for survivor benefits based on the prior marriage only If the subsequent marriage ends through death, divorce or annulment. 

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