Does a Surviving Spouse Always Collect 100 Percent of Social Security Benefits?

Carrie Schwab Pomerantz
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Posted: Oct 12, 2011 12:01 AM

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

As I mentioned, a spouse at full retirement age can collect 100 percent of the deceased spouse's benefit. But a surviving spouse can begin to collect benefits at age 60 if necessary (or age 50, if disabled). In this case, however, the benefit is reduced by a small percentage for each month before the surviving spouse reaches full retirement age. This could potentially reduce the monthly benefit to between 71 percent and 99 percent of the full benefit.

For example, assuming that your wife's full retirement age is 66, if she started collecting survivor benefits at 60, she would get only 71.5 percent of your benefit. If she started at 62, she'd get 81 percent, and so on. The rationale is that by claiming benefits early, you receive them for a longer period of time so it potentially adds up to the same total. You can find a detailed chart of the various ages and percentages on the Social Security website at ssa.gov/suvivorplan.

IF YOU DIE BEFORE STARTING TO TAKE BENEFITS

Should you die before filing for benefits, no matter how old you are, once your wife reaches full retirement age she would qualify for 100 percent of the benefit you would have received (or her own benefit, whichever is greater). If she starts to collect early, however, it will be reduced as I just described.

STRATEGIES FOR TODAY

While your question concerns survivor benefits, you might also want to make sure you and your wife are maximizing the benefits you're entitled to today. For instance, if you've already filed for benefits, your wife could collect benefits either based on her own work history or the spousal benefit, whichever is higher.

If you haven't explored your various options, I suggest talking to your financial advisor to come up with the best strategy. You can also contact the Social Security administration. It offers information and counseling to help you weigh the different factors. You can speak to a Social Security counselor at your local SSA office or call 1-800-772-1213. Best of luck.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm), is president of Charles Schwab Foundation and author of "It Pays to Talk." You can e-mail Carrie at askcarrie@schwab.com. This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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