Social Security Spousal Benefits Versus Survivor Benefits

I’ve written a lot about Social Security Spousal Benefits and Survivor Benefits on these pages, but oftentimes there is confusion about how they are applied.  There are things about them that are common, but for the most part there are some real differences that you need to understand as you make decisions about applying for one or the other of these benefits.

For one thing – Survivor Benefits and Spousal Benefits are benefits that you may be entitled to that are based on someone else’s record: your spouse (or ex-spouse) to be exact.  No matter what your own Social Security benefit might be, you have access to the Spousal Benefit and Survivor Benefit, if, of course, you have or had a spouse with a Social Security retirement benefit available on his or her record.

In addition, it is important to note that Spousal Benefits and Survivor Benefits are mutually exclusive.  You can’t receive both at the same time – and if you apply for both at the same time, you’ll end up with the higher of the two.  Technically you wouldn’t apply for both at the same time, you’d just find out which one provides the best benefit for you.  This doesn’t mean that you have to take the higher benefit, because it’s possible that you could receive a better benefit later if you delay filing for one or the other until later.  If you are at least at Full Retirement Age (FRA, age 66 if born in 1954 or before, increasing to age 67 if born in 1960 or later), more than likely the Survivor Benefit is the greater of the two, and neither benefit will increase after you’ve reached FRA, so you might as well receive that benefit at this point.

Both the Spousal and Survivor benefit can be reduced by WEP.  They both can also be reduced or eliminated by the GPO.

Differences

One of the first differences between Spousal and Survivor benefits is the relation to your own retirement benefit.  If you have your own retirement benefit and you haven’t filed for it, filing for the Spousal Benefit before FRA will force a filing for your own retirement benefit, and it could wipe out the Spousal Benefit for you.  If you’re at or older than FRA, you can file solely for the Spousal Benefit and have no impact on your own retirement benefit.

At the same time, if you’re eligible for a Survivor Benefit, you can file for it at any time and have no impact on your future retirement benefit (or Spousal Benefit, for that matter).

So – for example, Phil’s wife Joan died this year.  Joan was 65 years old, and had not started receiving Social Security benefits.  Phil has a Social Security retirement benefit available to him when he decides to file for it.  Phil is 65 years old, and his available benefits look like this:

His own retirement benefit will be $2,000 when he reaches FRA next year.

His Spousal Benefit based on Joan’s record could be $900 at FRA, since Joan was due a benefit of $1,800 at FRA had she reached that age.

Phil’s Survivor Benefit based on Joan’s record could be $1,800 at FRA.

If Phil filed for the Survivor Benefit now, at age 65, he could receive a monthly benefit that is reduced 4.7% from Joan’s FRA benefit, or $1,715.40.  This way he could delay receiving his own benefit until at least FRA – possibly even as late as age 70.  He could also wait until next year (his FRA) and file for the full Survivor Benefit of $1,800, again delaying his own benefit until later.

Any other set of choices would result in a lower benefit for Phil.  It’s possible that he could file for his own benefit right now, at age 65.  This would result in a lowered retirement benefit for him for the rest of his life – and since the Survivor Benefit is less than his own benefit, it wouldn’t make sense to ever file for the Survivor Benefit.  Also available is the option for Phil to not file for any benefits at all this year, and then at FRA he could file a restricted application for the Spousal Benefit alone.  This would result in a $900 monthly benefit – half of Joan’s age 66 benefit.  But since the Survivor benefit will not increase beyond Phil’s age 66, he might as well file for the Survivor Benefit at that point, since it’s double the Spousal Benefit.  As mentioned above, he can still file for his own benefit later, even though he’s collected the Survivor Benefit.

If we reverse the circumstances and Joan is the survivor, here are the benefits available to her:

Her own benefit at FRA is $1,800.

The Spousal Benefit based on Phil’s record could be $1,000 at Joan’s age 66.

The Survivor Benefit based on Phil’s record would be $2,000 at Joan’s age 66.

So Joan has the following options available to her right now, at age 65: she could file for her own benefit now and collect a reduced benefit of approximately $1,680 a month.  She could then file for the Survivor Benefit at FRA, and receive a benefit of $2,000 a month.

On the other hand, Joan could file for the Survivor Benefit now, at age 65 and receive a reduced monthly benefit of $1,906.  She could then wait until she reaches age 70 and file for her own benefit, which would have grown to $2,376 due to the Delay Credits.

The third option for Joan is to do nothing at this point.  She could then file for the Survivor Benefit at FRA, receiving a monthly benefit of $2,000, and then wait to file her own benefit later as detailed above.  If she’s waited to FRA to file, any other option would result in a lower benefit for her – if she filed for her own benefit at FRA, she’d only receive $1,800.  She might as well file for the Survivor Benefit at this point and receive $2,000.  This would then leave open the option to file for her own benefit at the delayed, increased amount as mentioned above.

In both cases, the Spousal Benefit doesn’t come into play, since the available Spousal Benefit for both Phil and Joan is less than the other available benefits.

About the author

Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA

Jim Blankenship is the founder and principal of Blankenship Financial Planning, Ltd., a financial planning firm providing hourly, as-needed financial planning and advice. A financial services professional for over 25 years, Jim is a CFP professional and has earned the Enrolled Agent designation, a designation that qualifies him as enrolled to practice before the IRS. Jim is also a NAPFA-registered financial advisor, which designates him as a Fee-Only Financial Advisor.

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8 Comments

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  • My husband passed away on june 15 2017. He was getting disablity and when he turned 65 they changed it to Social Security. So when he died he was getting Social Security but he was still disabled. He was 66 years old at the time of his death. I was and still am working part time. I will be turning 60 in November of this year(2017). Can I get Widows Benefit or is it survivor benefit. We were married in Dec of 2011.

    • If you are age 60 old or better, you are eligible for the survivor benefit (also known as widow’s benefit). If you are working and earning more than $16,920, for each $2 over that limit your benefit will be reduced by $1. Because of this it might be better to delay receiving the survivor benefit until you are no longer working (if your earnings are enough to reduce the benefit).

  • I am 61 years of age. I was born Feb 1956. I am self-employed & presently make less than $25K a year. I am thinking about retiring at age 62, (if not before) which will be in 10 months. My husband died almost 9 years ago. He was 52. I have not remarried, nor expect to marry in the future? My daughter received benefits as she was 14 when he died. Will her receiving that benefit affect the amount to me if I apply? If I am understanding the “Survivor Benefits” correctly, I could apply for them now at 61 or even wait until I’m 62. This benefit amount (unknown) would be paid to me monthly without affecting my Social Security FRA (65 years & some odd months) and I could even wait to apply until I’m 70 to let it build up? Is this correct? Is there any “downside” to applying for Survivor Benefits, that would hurt my future Social Security benefits. Again, as I understand it, I assume that my SS FRA (as of Aug 2016 was $1,644) would be higher than the Survivor Benefits & I could switch to the higher benefit, my full age retirement SS benefit, at a later date, even if I did remarry? Do investment incomes affect the amount of Survivors Benefits? I have a rental property. I have no debt & can live comfortably on very little income. Do I contact the SS Office to find out what the Survivor Benefit amount would be & if there’s any benefit for waiting to apply until I’m 62?

    • Your daughter’s claiming benefits as a child has no impact on your survivor benefits.

      You can file for survivor benefits at any age after age 60. Remarriage doesn’t impact your survivor benefit after age 60. Filing for survivor benefits at any age doesn’t impact your ability to file for your own benefit later (if it’s larger).

    • Technically if your own benefit is less than the spousal you can receive your own benefit and then add the “excess” spousal benefit to your own. In reality you are actually only receiving the larger of the two benefits.

      So the answer to your question is no – only the larger of the two benefits can be paid to you at any time.

  • Hi, my husband passed away March 4th, 2016. He was 100% disabled. He was also 100% disabled from the Va, service related. I am getting his SS and a widow’s pension from the VA. I am not even making 1/3 of what he brought in. I am 74. He was declared incompetent years ago, but still ran up bills. Is SS and widow’s benefits the same? Is there anywhere for me to get any help? Thank you, Barbara Hamn

    • If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking if there is any other Social Security benefit besides the survivor benefit that you are receiving…? If that’s the question, then the answer is no, as far as I can tell from the information you’ve provided.

      Your best bet to confirm this is to check with Social Security (visit the local office or call) and ask if there are any other benefits available to you.

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