Social Security Benefits When a Spouse Dies, Part I

What the Widow Needs to Know About the Social Security Benefit Statement and More...

One of the most common questions asked of a new widow is what happens to Social Security benefits after the death of their spouse. The answer is, it depends. Social Security (SS) is a complicated machine with many moving parts. The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Program Operations Manual System (POMS) has over 20,000 pages! This first post will focus on the basics of a surviving spouse’s Social Security benefits. Future posts will go into more detail and cover specific situations dealing with young widows, spouses with age differences, ex-spouses, multiple marriages, the impact of government pensions and the logistics of applying for benefits. There’s much to cover, so let’s get started.

Note: The SS benefits discussion in this blog covers common situations. Complicated or rare situations do occur and may affect your eligibility and SS benefit claiming strategies. It is always recommended that you contact the SSA with your specific details.

Please read the next sentence very carefully. Do not apply for any SS benefit without first analyzing your situation to know which claiming strategy makes the most sense for you! Choosing the wrong SS claiming strategy may cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime! Of the top 25 online checklists for widows, only one mentioned SS claiming strategies. The other 24 checklists simply directed the reader to contact the SSA and apply for benefits! What’s wrong with that you say? Time and time again we find that representatives at the SS office either don’t understand the various claiming strategies or they tell you they can’t offer advice on which SS benefits to claim and when to claim them. Picking the wrong benefit at the wrong time could cost the unaware widow many, many thousands of dollars over her lifetime. If you have options, you need to know the financial impact of choosing one option over another. Many of those 25 online checklists are provided by financial advisors which may mean they don’t understand how SS works for widows and can’t come up with a beneficial SS claiming strategy for you. This is worrisome to me and it should be to you too.  

First Thing to do: Obtain Your SS Benefit Statement
It’s always good to have and review a recent copy of your own SS benefit statement. Starting at age 60 and up to the point you start benefits, the SSA will mail a paper benefit statement to you about three months prior to your birthday. If you are under age 60 or can’t find your paper statement, you can get your benefit statement online. If you have started SS benefits, you will no longer receive the standard 4-page green and black statement but should receive a letter outlining changes to your benefits for the upcoming year.

If you don’t already have an online account with the SSA, go to  Click the Sign In/Up link at the upper right corner, then click the my Social Security box on the left and half way down the next page click Create an Account. There are a few more steps required to establish your account. When logging in to your established account, you will need to enter an 8-digit security code texted to your cellphone. Agree to the Terms of Service and your next page is the Overview where you access your full benefit statement. I suggest not getting the estimated benefits but go a little further down the page to Print / Save Your Full Statement.

Your Spouse’s SS Benefit Statement
Unfortunately, you cannot obtain your deceased spouse’s benefit statement online. If your spouse was at least age 60, they might have received their benefit statement in the mail.

If the SSA was already notified of your spouse’s passing, your spouse’s online account is no longer accessible. Also, you can’t register for or sign in to your spouse’s online account as it is not allowed by the SSA. As a widow, to obtain your spouse’s SS benefit information, you will need to visit a local SS office and take the required documents: your certified birth certificate, SS card, marriage license, your spouse’s SS card, certified birth certificate, and death certificate. There may be other documents required depending on your situation such as military discharge papers (DD Form 214) and citizenship papers. If young children are involved, you’ll need their SS cards and certified birth certificates. If an ex-spouse died, you’ll need their SS number, birth certificate and death certificate as well as information on other past spouses or current spouse of your deceased ex-spouse.

Checking SS Earnings History
One reason you want your (and your spouse’s) Full Statement is to check earnings history on file with the SSA. The graphic below shows the top of the third page which contains every year you worked and how much of your earnings was taxed for Social Security and for Medicare (this does not represent your benefit, so please don’t use the displayed numbers and amounts for your own benefit analysis). Mistakes have been made in the past and sometimes one or more years of earnings is misreported which can affect your benefit amount. The Full Statement includes instructions to report corrections to your work history.

How to Read the Benefit Information on Your SS Statement
Below is a sample of the top of the second page of a SS Benefits Statement (this does not represent your benefit, so please don’t use the displayed numbers and amounts for your own benefit analysis). The first thing to note on the very top is the word “Estimated”! Not until one applies for benefits or meets with an SSA representative, will they know exactly how much they can collect. The estimated benefits below are based on continuing to work and earn the current wage amount until the age mentioned in that row of information. For example, if the person below stops working prior to age 67 or makes less than expected, and starts their SS benefit at age 67, the amount received will mostly likely be less than the $2,820 a month shown here. The second amount shows $3,584/month, and this is the estimated amount if this person works until age 70 and then starts collecting their own retirement benefit. The third amount of $1,893 a month is received if this person works until age 62 and starts collecting their own retirement benefit at that time.  The SS retirement benefit is a person’s own benefit which is different from a survivor’s benefit and different from a spousal benefit. If you are reading your own SS benefit statement, it will not show any surviving spouse/widow or spousal benefit numbers for you. Surviving spouse/widow and spousal benefit amounts, for you, are derived from your spouse’s SS benefit statement. 

The graphic below includes a Family Survivor’s section which will be covered in a future blog post discussing SS benefits for widows who are raising young or disabled children of the deceased spouse.

Common Social Security Terms
Let’s review a few common SS terms so that all of us are using the same terms in the same way. The SS timeline is important too and we will look at the various ages and how they impact your SS benefits.

Retirement Benefit – Is the SS retirement benefit earned by you based on your wages over your lifetime. This is what most people think of when they say they are collecting Social Security. In SSA lingo this benefit is referred to as a Retirement Insurance Benefit (RIB).

Spousal Benefit – Is the SS benefit you qualify for based on your spouse’s wages earned during their lifetime. If you also worked, you may have your own Retirement Benefit, and if you are married, you may also have access to a Spousal Benefit (but you can’t collect your full retirement and full spousal benefits at the same time; they don’t get added together for a benefit larger than either one of them). In SSA lingo this benefit is referred to as a Spouse’s Insurance Benefit (SIB).

Survivor Benefit – Is the SS benefit you qualify for based on your spouse’s wages earned during their lifetime and due to their death. Based on your spouse’s earnings, you may be able to collect a spousal benefit while they are alive or a survivor benefit if they are deceased. You can’t collect both a spousal and survivor benefit at the same time. In SSA lingo this benefit is referred to as a Widow(er)’s Insurance Benefit (WIB).

Children’s Benefit – is the SS benefit a child can receive not only if they are disabled, but if their parent is disabled, retired or deceased. Even a grandchild raised by their grandparent may qualify for a Children’s Benefit. Age, marital and dependent status and employment limits apply.

Full Retirement Age (FRA) – This is the age that the SSA considers you reaching full retirement age, which is the age when you can collect 100% of your SS retirement benefit (if you haven’t started collecting early, prior to your FRA). Your FRA ranges from age 65 to 67 and is based on your birth year. Anyone born prior to 1938 has an FRA of 65. Those born in 1960 or later have an FRA of 67. Those born 1938 or later, but before 1960, have an FRA somewhere between ages 65 and 67. Here is the chart to determine your FRA. One more thing, the FRA of a widow might be slightly different by one to four months from their regular FRA. 

Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) – This is the monthly amount of SS retirement benefit earned by you if you were to start collecting your own SS retirement benefit at your FRA (age 65 to 67). Each spouse has their own PIA based on their own SS earnings record.  This PIA is the amount used for ALL calculations related to spousal, survivor, early or delayed and young children benefits. Everything revolves around the PIA.   

Delayed Retirement Credits (DRC) – If you delay the start of your own SS retirement benefit beyond your FRA, your benefit can increase 8% each year you delay, up to age 70 (those born prior to 1943 might have received a lower annual DRC rate; with the lowest rate at 5.5% per year). These DRCs are earned monthly, not annually. The 8% annual rate is actually earned at the rate of 8/12th of one-percent each month. One does not have to delay a full year before earning an 8% credit. If your FRA is age 67 and you delay the start of your benefit until age 67 years and 4 months, you earn 4 months’ worth of DRC (4 x 8/12th of one-percent equals a 2.33% credit).  Delaying the start of your own SS benefit beyond your age 70 provides no additional DRCs. Earning DRCs results in a permanent increase of benefits (for the rest of your life!). For many (not all) people delaying the start of their SS is a smart move. A future blog post will go into detail on when delaying the start of SS benefits makes sense and certain situations when delaying may not make sense.    

Well, that’s enough for this post; let’s quickly review the main takeaways…

Lessons Learned
This post covered the tip of the giant SS iceberg. In reviewing the basics of a SS benefit statement and commonly used terms, we learned:

  • The SS system is very complicated, meaning SS representatives can and do make mistakes with people’s benefits.
  • Almost everyone tells the new widow to go to the SS office and apply for benefits. The presumption is that the widow will get accurate and valuable advice at the SS office (see first Lesson above). Don’t blindly apply for SS benefits without the proper analysis done by a competent financial advisor.
  • Online, one can obtain their own SS benefit statement online but not their deceased spouse’s benefit statement.
  • It’s a good idea to check earnings history on your SS benefit statement and correct any mistakes.
  • Retirement, spousal and survivor SS benefits are not the same. Using the proper terms at the right time reduces confusion and miscommunication.
  • Delayed Retirement Credits can be very beneficial, especially for a widow’s survivor benefit.

Jim Schwartz, Certified Financial Planner™ ProfessionalNext Post.
More Social Security!  We’ll look at the SS timeline and the importance of key ages as they relate to eligibility of retirement, spousal and survivor benefits. 

Jim Schwartz, CFP®, RICP®
[email protected]
Blogger, Widowed Community Financial Blog
Twitter, @WidComm, @JimSchwartzCFP

Jim Schwartz is a Scottsdale, AZ fee-only financial planner with an expertise and interest in financial planning and education for widows and widowers.  Years of working with and advising widows, widowers, and surviving partners has provided a wealth of experience and knowledge in this complicated financial arena.  He is particularly skilled in his ability to guide his clients through difficult decisions while ensuring the stability of their finances. 

Contact Jim: If you would like to contact Jim directly, without submitting a public comment below, feel free to use the Contact page.

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