Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Dear Carrie: Does my wife collect 100 percent of my Social Security benefits at my death? Thank you. -- Bert

Dear Bert: I wish I could provide you with a quick answer to such a straightforward question. But as with so many issues related to government programs, there are a number of factors that come into play. So yes, it is (set ital) possible (end ital) for your wife to collect 100 percent of your Social Security benefits after you die. But read on for some of the fine print.

Before we get into those details, I want to clarify that there is a difference between standard (set ital) spousal (end ital) Social Security benefits, which max out at 50 percent of the worker's benefit and (set ital) survivor (end ital) benefits, which can go as high as 100 percent.

In terms of survivor benefits, if you should die your wife's benefit will depend on three things: 1) when you begin to take your Social Security benefits 2) her age when she begins to collect survivors benefits and 3) whether or not you had started to collect benefits prior to your death.

Since I don't know the particulars of your situation, I'll just briefly lay out a few scenarios.

IF YOU TAKE YOUR BENEFITS AT FULL RETIREMENT AGE

The simplest is if you begin taking benefits at full retirement age (66 for those born between 1943 and 1954). That would mean you'd collect your full benefit and your wife, should you pass away before her, could then collect 100 percent of your benefits as long as she also was at full retirement age. This doesn't mean you absolutely have to start taking benefits at age 66. You could also choose to delay up to age 70. The advantage here is that the longer you delay taking Social Security, the larger your benefit--and the larger your wife's survivor's benefit--would be.

IF YOU TAKE YOUR BENEFITS EARLY

If you begin taking your Social Security benefits at 62, the earliest age you become eligible, your monthly benefit would be reduced permanently by about 25 percent. In this case, your wife's benefit is also affected. The IRS rules state that a widow or widower at full retirement age qualifies for 100 percent of what a spouse (set ital) has been receiving (end ital). So if you opt to take Social Security early, upon your death, your wife would collect 100 percent of your (set ital) reduced (end ital) benefits. Unfortunately, the IRS doesn't boost the benefit to the full rate when someone dies.

IF YOUR WIFE TAKES SURVIVOR BENEFITS EARLY


Carrie Schwab Pomerantz

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz is a Motley Fool contributor.

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