How Social Security Will Help Your Widow or Widower

Social Security not only provides us with retirement income if we work in a job that requires payment of Social Security tax (being self-employed or working for a company, but not working for the government), but it also provides our surviving spouse and minor or disabled children with an annuity.

The public policy is that a surviving spouse needs financial support and so do surviving children. Disabled widows and children need support more.

For individuals, the highest earning 40 quarters are used to determine the benefits. If an individual has less than 40 quarters, he or she gets zero for the quarters not worked. But for those who die at an early age before they have a chance to generate much in the way of contributions, there is a provision for just looking at the highest six quarters of the twelve quarters prior to death to determine a payment amount.

How much will you receive from Social Security if your spouse pre-deceases you? As a general rule, the surviving spouse receives an amount equal to what the recently deceased spouse collected while he or she was still alive. However, there are some exceptions: 1) Your benefit cannot be reduced. So if your spouse’s benefit was smaller than your own, his or her passing will not affect your benefit. 2) If you have not yet reached your normal retirement age, your widow’s benefit will be reduced if you decide to collect it early. Note, you may not collect the Social Security widow benefit prior to age 60 unless you are caring for a child under the age of 19 (or 19 if the child is still a full-time student). If you are disabled, you may be able to receive the widow benefit as young as age 50.

Surviving spouses who are caring for minor or disabled children of the decedent are eligible for 75 percent of the benefit the decedent accumulated. An unmarried child under 18 (19 if attending primary or secondary school) qualifies for another 75 percent. The same is true for a disabled child of any age if he or she was disabled before age 22 for as long as he or she remains disabled.

The maximum for one household is 150 percent to 180 percent of the benefit the decedent accumulated. If the cap is reached, all checks are scaled back to stay under the cap.

In general, the surviving spouse must qualify by age or child care to get survivor’s benefits.

The widow can start collecting survivor benefits starting at age 60 (50 if disabled) at a reduced rate (71.5% of the full rate) and at 66 at the full rate, the amount being dependent on the decedent’s accumulated benefit and age at death.

An ex-spouse may collect widows benefits as well. A former spouse may receive benefits if he or she qualifies by age (the same as above) and the marriage lasted at least ten years. A former spouse may also qualify by caring for minor (under 16 in this case) or disabled children of the decedent.

By taking the survivor’s share, a person may avoid starting to take his or her own retirement annuity until reaching the full retirement age. A spouse, widowed or not, is entitled to the retirement annuity that his or her earnings dictate or one half of the other spouse’s annuity, whichever is greater. This annuity can be started early at a reduced rate at age 62. The full annuity amount is available at age 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954.

To be clear, one cannot collect both the widow’s annuity and the retirement annuity at the same time. It’s one or the other. However, while collecting widow’s benefits you can allow your own Social Security benefits to grow untouched, and decide to switch later to collect the higher benefit.

What if the surviving spouse remarries? If remarriage occurs after age 60, there is no disqualification for benefits. If remarried before age 60, benefits are generally not available. If the surviving spouse is disabled, the age cutoff for remarriage is lowered to 50.

What about the decedent’s parents? They too may receive benefits if they are 62 or older and were dependents of the decedent. Dependent means the decedent provided the individual with over half of his or her support.