When a spouse dies, the survivor is often presented with a host of financial decisions. It would be nice if decisions about Social Security were simple. I’m here to say: Sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re not.

It’s generally assumed that when one spouse dies, the surviving spouse collects a Social Security benefit equal to that of the recently departed or their benefit, whichever is higher. That’s often the case—but not always.

Consulting daily with financial advisors on client Social Security filing strategy, I’ve learned that deep in Social Security’s 2,700-plus regulations are rules that provide potentially surprising results for the recently widowed.   

Here’s an example: a financial advisor using advanced software to model Social Security options for a recent widow found that her survivors benefit was significantly higher than what her deceased had been collecting. The advisor questioned the accuracy of the software’s output. I dug in.  

It turned out that the husband had filed for Social Security benefits at age 62, so he was collecting a reduced benefit, lower than what his primary insurance amount (PIA) would have been if he’d waited to file at his full retirement age (FRA).

His widow had, at the time of his death, surpassed the age known as her survivor FRA. As a result, she was entitled to 82.5% of her husband’s PIA, which was higher than the reduced benefit he had been collecting.

Do you see? It’s easy to get tripped up by making assumptions about Social Security benefits. Let’s review a few more things that are good to know about survivors benefits so you can help clients at a stressful time.

Basic Facts And Things To Know About Survivors Benefits
Funeral homes usually ask for the deceased’s Social Security number and notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) of the death, so benefit payments are halted. Any benefits paid for months after the one in which a person dies must be repaid.

If an individual was collecting Social Security benefits, a surviving spouse needs to contact SSA directly—by calling or visiting a Social Security office—to arrange for survivors benefits. This cannot be done online.

A widowed spouse who has reached their FRA is entitled to 100% of what a deceased spouse was collecting at the time of death. The survivors benefit will, however, be less than 100% if the widowed spouse is between age 60 and full retirement age.

Choices May Turn On Whether A Widowed Spouse Is Still Working
Many couples today have two income earners. An eligible widowed spouse can take a survivors benefit and switch to their benefit later at full retirement age or later, taking advance of the boost in benefits provided by delayed retirement credits.

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