Kohei Hara—Getty Images
By Philip Moeller
August 19, 2016

Q: My spouse died 20 years ago. Am I able to get survivor benefits at this later date? – Keith

A: Yes. Assuming you qualify for Social Security survivor benefits, there is no requirement that you file within a specified period after your spouse’s death. As with most Social Security decisions, there are several factors to consider in deciding when—or whether—to claim survivor benefits.

A couple need to have been married for nine months to qualify for survivor benefits based on each other’s work record. Normally, survivor benefits may not be taken prior to age 60 (age 50 if disabled). One exception: if the widow or widower is caring for a school-age child of the deceased.

If the late worker was much older than the survivor, or both were young when the one died, decades might pass before the survivor is eligible to file for survivor benefits.

The amount of survivor benefits depends on how much the deceased spouse earned; the age at which he or she filed for a retirement benefit, if that occurred; and the age at which the survivor starts benefits.

The survivor benefit is usually based on the benefit the deceased spouse was receiving. If the deceased had not filed for retirement, the survivor benefit usually would equal the size of the benefit to which he or she was entitled at the time of death. Benefits are adjusted for consumer inflation every year, so the real value of payments would be the same regardless of how long the surviving spouse waited to file.

Survivor benefits reach their maximum amount at the survivor’s full retirement age (FRA). Survivor benefits that start at age 60 are reduced by 28.5%.

In a world full of Social Security quirks, there is one here that might be important to you: The FRA for survivor benefits occurs sooner than the FRA for normal retirement benefits for some people. For instance, if you were born in 1957, your FRA for survivor benefits is 66 years and two months old; your FRA for your earned retirement benefit is 66 years and six months.

Survivors have options to maximize their lifetime Social Security income by choosing between a survivor benefit and an earned retirement benefit and/or starting with one and switching to the other later on. Sweetening the deal: You can collect a reduced benefit of either type before FRA and then switch to the other type of benefit on an unreduced basis after you reach your FRA.

Say your own retirement benefit will eventually be greater than your survivor benefit. You would want to defer claiming your retirement benefit until age 70 and earn delayed retirement credits in the meantime. You could file for the lower survivor benefit first and then switch to your own retirement benefit later.

Alternatively, it might be that your survivor benefit will always be the larger of the two. But in order to allow it to reach its maximum amount, you want to wait to file for it until your FRA. In this case, you could file first for your own retirement benefit and then switch at your FRA to your survivor benefit.

Note that benefits taken before FRA may be temporarily reduced by Social Security’s earnings test. You will get these reductions back after FRA if you continue to receive survivor benefits.

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Finally, if you are past your FRA and wish to file for a survivor benefit, you will be entitled to up to six months of retroactive benefits under Social Security’s retroactivity rules.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. He is co-author of the recently updated New York Times bestseller, “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” His companion book, “Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage; Minimize Your Costs,” will be published this fall. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

 

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