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Social Security Benefits for Widows

Losing a spouse is typically one of the most traumatic times in a person’s life. If you or your senior loved one has recently lost a husband or wife, feelings of depression and helplessness, a loss of interest in favorite activities, and an inability to perform everyday tasks are common and natural. The grieving process is long and ever evolving. On top of the emotional – and often physical – pain that accompany grief, the surviving spouse is also left with financial and household responsibilities they may not be used to shouldering alone.

Social Security survivor benefits for spouses may alleviate some of the financial burden. But what do they entail, and how can they be accessed? This guide can help answer some of the most common questions associated with survivor benefits and how Social Security works when a spouse dies.

Social Security Survivor Benefits for Those Age 60 & Over

When a Social Security beneficiary dies, their surviving spouse is eligible for survivor benefits. A surviving spouse can collect 100 percent of the late spouse’s benefit if the survivor has reached full retirement age. The amount of the Social Security survivor benefits for a spouse will be lower if the deceased spouse claimed benefits before they reached full retirement age.

For those who turn 62 in 2019, full retirement age is 66 and 6 months. Under current law, retirement age is set to increase by two months each year until it hits 67. So, for anyone born in 1960 or later, full retirement age will be 67, unless the law changes.

If a surviving spouse had been receiving spousal benefits on the late spouse’s work record, Social Security will – in most cases – switch those benefits automatically to survivor benefits when the death is reported. If not, the surviving spouse needs to apply for Social Security survivor benefits by phone at 800-772-1213 or in person at their local Social Security office.

Survivor benefits are typically calculated based on the benefit the late spouse was receiving from Social Security at the time of death, or was entitled to receive, based on age and earnings history if they had not yet claimed benefits. The actual amount of government benefits a widow or widower will receive will vary based on age and family circumstance.

Who Qualifies for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

  • A widow or widower aged at least 60 who has been married to the deceased for at least nine months at the time of death
  • If you're a survivor whose spouse’s death was accidental or occurred in the line of U.S. military duty (no length-of-marriage requirement for those married to veterans killed in the line of duty), you're likely eligible for veterans aid and attendance benefits.
  • A widow or widower as young as age 50 who is disabled, and the disability occurred within seven years of the spouse’s death
  • A surviving spouse of any age who is caring for children from the marriage who are less than 16 years old or disabled (75 percent of late spouse’s benefit)

What Affects Eligibility?

Eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits can be affected in a number of ways:

  • Divorce: If a surviving spouse remarries before age 60 (50 if disabled), they are ineligible for survivor benefits. Eligibility returns if that marriage ends. There is no effect on eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits for a surviving spouse who remarries at or past age 60 (50 if disabled).
  • Survivor Retirement Age: At full retirement age, a surviving spouse gets 100 percent of the benefit the late spouse was receiving (or would have been collecting). If a surviving spouse claims survivor benefits between age 60 (50 if disabled) and full retirement age, they will receive between 71.5 percent and 99 percent of the late spouse’s benefit. The percentage increases the older the survivor is when they claim.
  • Survivor’s Own Social Security Benefit: Widows and widowers will not receive a survivor benefit in addition to their own retirement benefit. Social Security pays the higher of the two amounts. Surviving spouses below full retirement age who are still working may see their survivor benefits affected by Social Security’s earnings limit.

Planning for Life After Losing a Spouse

Ideally, a married couple should make decisions together that will maximize a survivor’s spousal and survivor benefit. Couples may choose to maximize the benefit by having the higher-earning spouse delay collecting Social Security until age 70. 

Following the traumatic loss of a spouse, applying for survivor benefits might not seem like a top priority. However, it’s important not to leave financial resources on the table. Survivor benefits start from the time you apply, so they’re not retroactive from the time of the spouse’s death. The longer a widow or widower waits to start the application process, the more money they will miss out on.

Survivor benefits can help pay for lingering healthcare bills (for the deceased or surviving spouse) and the daily cost of living without one income-earner. These benefits are sometimes overlooked as a potential resource or source of funds to help pay for independent or assisted living or home care for the surviving spouse.

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