Social Security Survivor Benefits


Social Security survivor benefits are dependent on when the decedent originally began his/her earned benefit and when the survivor starts the survivor benefit. Understanding how to calculate survivor benefits is complicated so we’ll run through some scenarios. We’ll first bracket the survivor benefit: worst case a Social Security survivor benefit will be 71.5% of the decedent’s Full Retirement Age (FRA) benefit; and best case, it will be the decedent’s maximized earned benefit (decedent began earned Social Security benefits at age 70).

In our example Joe and Julie were both born before 1955 so FRA for each is 66. To keep the math simple, we’ll assume that Joe’s FRA benefit is $2,000 a month and Julie’s FRA benefit is $1,600 a month.

  • Example 1: Joe begins his Social Security benefit at FRA (age 66) and dies when Julie is 60 years old. Survivors can receive benefits as early as age 60 (or age 50 if disabled). If Julie starts her survivor benefit at 60, she would receive $1,430 (71.5% of Joe’s FRA earned benefit). If she is wants to maximize her survivor benefit, she should begin the Social Security survivor benefit at FRA and receive $2,000 a month. Every month Julie waits between age 60 and 66 to begin her survivor benefit the monthly amount will increase.

  • Example 2: Joe begins his Social Security benefit at age 70 when the payment is maximized at $2,640 a month and dies when Julie is 60. If Julie immediately begins her survivor benefit, she would receive $1,887 (71.5% of $2,640). If she wants to maximize her survivor benefit, she should begin her benefit at FRA (66) where her monthly benefit would be $2,640.

  • Example 3: Joe begins his Social Security benefit at 62, which is the earliest possible age he can collect an earned benefit. This minimizes his earned benefit at $1,500 a month. He dies when Julie is 60 years old. If Julie wants to immediately begin her survivor benefit it would be $1,430 (71.5% of Joe’s FRA earned benefit). If Julie wants to maximize her Social Security survivor benefit, she can actually capture up to 82.5% of Joe’s FRA benefit. Even though Joe was collecting just 75% of his FRA benefit at age 62, there is a survivor benefit floor limiting reductions to 82.5% of the decedent’s FRA earned benefit. In this situation for Julie to maximize her survivor benefit, she would start collecting at age 62.

The examples above only discuss Social Security survivor benefits and let’s use that knowledge to coordinate Julie’s earned benefit into the equation. Remember that Julie has an FRA earned benefit of $1,600. If she begins her earned benefit at age 62, which minimizes her monthly benefit, it would equal$1,200 a month (75% of $1,600). If she waits until age 70 where her social security earned benefit is maximized, she would receive $2,112 a month. Let’s also remember that there is an earnings test for people collecting Social Security benefits before full retirement age. 

  • Example 1A: Joe begins his Social Security benefit at FRA and dies when Julie is 60 years old. If Julie desires to protect her longevity, it makes sense for her to wait until age 70 to begin her earned benefit which would be $2,112 a month and larger than her survivor benefit. If she isn’t working at age 60, she should start her survivor benefit and collect the $1,430 a month for the next 10 years, then switch to her earned benefit. If Julie is working and earning more than $17,640 a year, it might be in her best interest to wait until FRA (66) when the earnings test will not affect her Social Security benefit. She could then begin her maximized Social Security survivor benefit of $2,000 a month and switch to her earned benefit at age 70 ($2,112 a month).

  • Example 2A: Joe begins his Social Security benefit at age 70 receives $2,640 a month earned benefit and dies when Julie is 60. If Julie desires to protect her longevity, it makes sense for her to begin her Social Security survivor benefit at age 66 when it is maximized at $2,640 a month. If she isn’t working, she should start her earned benefit at age 62 and collect $1,200 (75% of $1,600) a month until she reaches FRA at age 66, when she would switch to her survivor benefit. If she is working at age 62 the earnings test could affect her earned Social Security benefit but even if she loses some of her earned benefit, she should still start early as her Social Security survivor benefit will always be greater than her earned benefit.

  • Example 3A: Joe begins his Social Security benefit at 62 and receives an earned benefit of $1,500 a month. He dies when Julie is 60 years old. If Julie wants to protect her longevity in this situation, waiting to begin her earned benefit at age 70 makes sense. She would receive $2,112 a month. When should Julie begin her Social Security survivor benefit? If she isn’t working, the answer is age 60, when she would receive $1,430 a month for 10 years. If she is working and her survivor benefit is negatively affected by the earnings test, then she might be better off waiting until FRA (age 66) to begin her survivor benefit as the earnings test no longer applies. Depending on had much the earnings test affects her survivor benefit amount, beginning somewhere between age 60 and 66 might be the best solution.

Coordinating Social Security earned and survivor benefits is an important consideration in Social Security planning for married couples, and divorced individuals who were married for a minimum of ten years. Understanding how these benefits work together will help you make better Social Security benefit decisions.

This website’s resources will help educate you on Social Security benefits. If you prefer personalized assistance to better understand your options, or if you desire assistance with signing up for Social Security benefits, please schedule a phone appointment with one of our specialists.

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