News and Commentary

Claiming Social Security After the Loss of a Spouse By Kathleen Marteney, CRPC

According to the Social Security Administration, Social Security retirement benefits replace, on average, 40 percent of an individual’s pre-retirement income. As a general rule, the longer you wait to begin claiming these benefits, the larger the monthly benefit you will ultimately receive. While this principle seems simple enough, the types of benefits and claiming strategies available to you can be quite complex. Here’s what you need to know to plan for yourself and for the longevity and income needs of a surviving spouse.

There are generally three types of Social Security benefits available to married couples, including 1) an individual’s personal benefits, 2) spousal benefits and 3) survivor benefits for widows, widowers and dependent children. The benefits you are eligible to receive depend on your work history and the wages you earned as well as the year in which you begin claiming benefits.

If you begin taking Social Security at age 62, the earliest year in which you are allowed to do so, your monthly benefit will be approximately 30 percent lower than if you wait until you reach full retirement age, which is 67 for individuals born in 1960 or later. Herein lies several challenges: If you begin claiming Social Security benefits too early, your income stream in retirement may not be sufficient for all your needs, and the amount available to be claimed by a surviving spouse or dependent children will be lower than if you wait until your full retirement age.

Who Qualifies for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Generally, survivor benefits are available to a decedent’s surviving spouse, his or her children under age 18 (or older if the child is disabled) or his or her parents, provided age 62 or older who depended on the decedent for at least half of their financial support.

A widow or widower caring for a decedent’s child who is under age 16 or disabled may apply for survivor benefits at any time. Otherwise, the surviving spouse must be age 60 or older and married to the decedent for at least nine months at the time of death. A widow or widower disabled for a minimum of seven years before a spouse’s death may apply for Social Security benefits beginning at age 50.

While a former spouse whose marriage to a decedent lasted a minimum 10 years may also qualify for survivor benefits, those benefits may be affected when the former spouse remarries before reaching age 62 (or age 50 if disabled).

After the death of a spouse, you should provide the funeral home with the decedent’s Social Security number to report the death directly to the Social Security Administration (SSA). If you lived with the decedent, the SSA may provide you with an immediate death benefit of $255. If your deceased spouse was already receiving Social Security benefits, you must return to the SSA any benefits received during the month of the decedent’s death and any months thereafter. It is important that you do not cash any Social Security payments you receive in the months immediately following the death of a spouse.

How are Survivor Benefits Calculated?

The amount of a survivor benefit depends on the Social Security benefits a deceased spouse was receiving (or was entitled to receive) at the time of his or her death as well as a widow or widower’s unique circumstances. For example, if you are full retirement age (67) or older, you may receive 100 percent of the benefits your deceased spouse was entitled to collect. However, claiming survivor benefits as early as age 60 (or 50 is you are disabled) will reduce the amount you receive to approximately 71.5 percent.

Keep in mind that you are entitled to a spouse’s Social Security benefits regardless of whether you worked long enough to qualify for your own benefits. However, you will not receive a survivor benefit if you are already collecting your own individual benefits. Under these circumstances, you will receive the higher of the two amounts. Yet, it you were the higher earner in your marriage, and you are receiving survivor benefits as a widow/widower, you may elect to discontinue those benefits when you reach age 62 and switch to your own Social Security benefits provided your retirement rate is higher than that as a widow/widower.

How Can Widows/Widowers Maximize Survivor Benefits?

Although it can be easy to assume that Social Security will simply supplement your retirement income, it is important to plan ahead and have a claiming strategy in place to ensure ample cash flow for your long-term needs. Just because you can begin claiming the benefits of a deceased spouse does not mean you should. The longer you delay, the larger the benefit you will receive in your later years.

When both spouses worked during their marriage, each may claim their own Social Security benefits as well as those of his or her spouse. Therefore, it may make sense for a lower-earning spouse to claim his or her own benefits before reaching full retirement age, allowing the higher-earning spouse’s benefits to grow and be claimed as a spousal benefit by the lower-earning spouse after the higher-earning spouse passes away. Note, however, the higher-income-earning spouse must start claiming benefits for the other spouse to claim spousal benefits. When that spouse passes away, the benefit will convert automatically to a survivor’s benefit.

Social Security claiming strategies are merely one factor to consider when planning for a long and secure retirement. Couples should meet with their financial advisors to crunch the numbers and asses the risks and rewards of different strategies and how they fit into a larger estate plan that provides a lifetime stream of income.

About the Author: Kathleen Marteney, CRPC, is a financial planner with Provenance Wealth Advisors, an Independent Registered Investment Advisor affiliated with Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors + CPAs, and a registered representative with Raymond James Financial Services. She can be reached at (800) 737-8804 or via email at

Provenance Wealth Advisors, 515 E. Las Olas Blvd., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301 (954) 712-8888.

Kathleen Montgomery is a registered representative of and offers securities through Raymond James Financial Services, Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC.

Raymond James is not affiliated with and does not endorse the opinions or services of Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors and Accountants. PWA is not a registered broker/dealer and is independent of Raymond James Financial Services. Investment Advisory Services offered through Raymond James Financial Services Advisors, Inc., and Provenance Wealth Advisors.

This material is being provided for information purposes only and is not a complete description, nor is it a recommendation. Any opinions are those of the advisors of PWA and not necessarily those of Raymond James. All information is not a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision and does not constitute a recommendation. Please note, changes in tax laws may occur at any time and could have a substantial impact upon each person’s situation. RJFS does not provide tax advice. You should discuss any tax or legal matters with the appropriate professional. Prior to making an investment decision, please consult with your financial advisor about your individual situation.

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Posted on May 3, 2022