Ask Larry: What Will My Wife’s Social Security Widow’s Benefit Be If I Die First?

Today’s column addresses questions about potential future survivor’s benefits a spouse could receive in the event of the record holder’s death, when divorced spousal benefits might be available and filing options when eligible for both retirement and widow(er)’s benefits. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, which markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner.

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Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


What Will My Wife’s Social Security Widow’s Be If I Die First?

Hi Larry, I turned 67 in September and my wife turned 62 the same month. My wife has never worked outside the home as she worked in the house and raised our children. I am retiring now at the end of 2020. If my wife starts collecting Social Security spousal benefits now, what will her benefit increase to if I die first? Thanks, Frank

Hi Frank, Your wife could be paid your full benefit rate as a widow as long as she’s at least full retirement age (FRA) when she files for them. If she starts drawing widow’s benefits prior to FRA though, her benefit rate would be reduced for age based on her age at the time of her entitlement to widow’s benefits. That would be true regardless of when your wife starts drawing spousal benefits.

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Before then, she can file for her spousal benefit as early as 62. Her unreduced spousal benefit would be 50% of your primary insurance amount (PIA), which is equal to your full retirement age (FRA) retirement benefit amount. If she begins taking her spousal benefit before her FRA, it would also be reduced for age depending on how many months before her FRA she begins them.

You and your wife may want to consider using my company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — to fully analyze the options available to you in order to determine your best strategy for maximizing benefits. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


Do I Have To Wait Until My Ex Turns 62 To Collect Divorced Spousal Benefits?

Hi Larry, My ex and I were married more than 10 years. He is seven years younger than me. Do I have to wait until he is 62 and i am 69 to collect spousal benefits? I have not remarried and do qualify for benefits on my own from working outside the house. Thanks, Amy

Hi Amy, Probably, yes. The only way that you could potentially be paid divorced spousal benefits before your ex reaches 62 is if he either starts drawing Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits or if you become eligible for widow’s benefits.

Even if they were small, you could potentially file for your own retirement benefits as early as 62 and then receive divorced spousal benefits later, but as long as your ex is still living you’d only qualify for divorced spousal benefits if 50% of your ex’s primary insurance amount (PIA) is higher than your own PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA). However, if you start drawing your retirement benefits prior to full retirement age (FRA), you’ll keep the reduction for age applied to your benefit rate even if you later become eligible for additional divorced spousal benefits.

For example, say Amy files for her benefits in this year at 62. Amy’s primary insurance amount (PIA), or full retirement age rate, would be $800, but Amy’s rate is reduced for age to $576. After Amy reaches FRA her ex turns 62. Amy’s husband’s PIA is $2,000, so Amy will then be able to claim an unreduced divorced spousal benefit calculated by subtracting her PIA from 50% of her ex-husband’s PIA. In Amy’s case, that amounts to $200 (i.e. $2,000 / 2 – $800). That amount would then be added to Amy’s own reduced rate of $576 to give her a combined rate of $776 (i.e. $576 + $200). Best, Larry


How Much Will I Be Able To Draw As A Widow?

Hi Larry, I am a widow. My husband birthdate was born in 1955 and he passed away in 2018. I will be 60 later this month. I am planning to retire at my full retirement age of 67. I understand I can draw my widow’s benefit at that time instead of my own retirement benefit. He made more than me over the years. Will I be able to draw the amount that he would have had at his FRA or be able to draw what he would have drawn at 70 when he was planning to take his benefits? Thanks, Sally

Hi Sally, I’m sorry for your loss.

Assuming that your husband didn’t collect Social Security retirement benefits prior to his death, if you file for widow’s benefits at full retirement age (FRA) or later, your widow’s rate would be equal to 100% of your husband’s primary insurance amount (PIA). A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA). Since your husband died before reaching his FRA, your widow’s rate could never be higher than his PIA even if you waited past FRA to start drawing widow’s benefits.

If you start drawing reduced widow’s benefits at 60, your widow’s rate would be equal to 71.5% of your husband’s PIA. Furthermore, if you file for benefits prior to FRA, they could be subject to full or partial withholding if you continue working and if you earn too much due to Social Security’s earnings test.

Your best filing strategy could be either filing for reduced widow’s benefits early and then switching to your own record at 70, or filing for reduced retirement benefits on your own record early and then filing for unreduced widow’s benefits at full retirement age (FRA). Normally, you would want to start out drawing the lower benefit first and then switch to the higher record when it reaches its highest potential rate. Best, Larry


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