—Ask Rusty—

What Will My Wife’s Benefit Be If I Die?

Dear Rusty: I am 76 years old and began collecting Social Security when I retired at the age of 62. My wife also began collecting SS when she turned 62 based on my benefits. She did not work enough to qualify on her own for Social Security benefits. My question is, how much will my wife receive after my death? Will she receive what I receive now, or will it be a percentage of the total that we both receive? Or will it be based on just my benefits alone or some other formula? Signed: An Inquisitive Senior

Dear Inquisitive: Your wife’s survivor benefit as your widow will be based upon your Social Security benefit alone. Usually a surviving spouse receives the same amount the deceased spouse was receiving at death, if that is more than the survivor is already receiving, and if the survivor has reached their full retirement age. However, in your case, if you should predecease your wife there’s a special rule which may benefit her because you claimed your benefit at age 62.

That rule says that because you claimed before your full retirement age (FRA), your wife’s benefit as your survivor should be at least 82.5% of the benefit you were entitled to at your full retirement age (66), even though you actually claimed at age 62. And because your benefit was reduced by 25% when you took it at age 62, your wife’s benefit as your widow may actually be more than you are receiving when you pass. This special rule is known as the “widow limit,” which stipulates that a surviving spouse is entitled to the greater of what the deceased was receiving while alive, or 82.5% of the deceased’s “primary insurance amount” or “PIA,” which is the amount due at full retirement age.

Here’s an example: If your FRA benefit amount was $1500/month, then your age 62 amount when you claimed was $1125. But due to the special rule, your wife would get $1238 (82.5% of $1500) instead of the reduced $1125 amount. Of course, this example doesn’t reflect the COLA (cost of living) increases which would have been applied to your benefit over the years, but as your widow and because you claimed before your full retirement age, your wife would be entitled to at least 82.5% of your PIA if that is more than the actual amount you were receiving when you passed.

About the Virtues of Claiming Benefits Early

Dear Rusty: It seems like we are always encouraged to wait until our full retirement age or age 70 to claim our Social Security. For me, benefits at age 62 were a good jump start to my retirement. How about listing the many benefits to early (age 62) retirement? And at what age does it become a liability, if ever? Signed: Happily Retired at age 78

Dear Happily Retired: You’re correct that most financial advisors and Social Security Advisors, including me, frequently encourage people to delay claiming Social Security until at least their full retirement age (FRA). And that’s because far too many claim their benefits as soon as they are available at age 62 “because it’s there,” without evaluating whether that’s a smart move for them personally. There are many reasons why it’s best to wait, but there are also some very good reasons for claiming benefits at age 62. Let’s explore those.

Claiming at age 62 is exactly the right move if you are in poor health and don’t expect to live a long life. Benefits taken age 62 are 25% less for those with a full retirement age (FRA) of 66, and 30% less if your FRA is 67. But those reductions become insignificant if you don’t expect to live a long, healthy life from that point forward. If you wait until your FRA, it takes about 12 years to collect the same amount in total benefits as if you had claimed at age 62.

Even if you are in decent health now, if your family history and your lifestyle suggest less than average longevity, claiming before your FRA, as early as 62, may be a prudent choice. By “lifestyle” I mean, for example, whether you exercise regularly, smoke or drink excessively or drive without a seatbelt. There are several life expectancy calculators available which can assist with predicting your life expectancy by evaluating your family history and lifestyle, including those available at this website: https://socialsecurityreport.org/tools/life-expectancy-calculator/. Just remember that no one can accurately forecast how long they will live but making an informed decision on when to claim should consider your estimated longevity, among other things.

If collecting your Social Security benefits early is needed to help pay for life’s necessities, such as food, housing, and out-of-pocket medical costs, then claiming as early as age 62, or any other time before your FRA, could be exactly the right choice. In other words, the need for the money now is a driving force in deciding when to claim.

Which brings me to your point that claiming at age 62 was a “jump start” to your retirement, allowing you to begin enjoying your golden years much earlier than you might have otherwise been able to. There’s a lot to be said for taking benefits early to fulfill your bucket list while you’re still young enough to enjoy it. And, from your signature, it looks like you’ve been putting that extra Social Security money to good use for many years now. Good for you! Now, at age 78, you’ve reached your “breakeven point” where, if you had waited until your FRA to claim, your cumulative lifetime benefits would hereafter be more than they will be because you claimed at 62. That may not, however, offset the many years of happy retirement you’ve been able to enjoy because you took your benefits early.

In the end, deciding when to claim Social Security should be done after carefully evaluating your personal situation. Anyone who claims benefits before their full retirement age must beware of Social Security’s “earnings test” which limits how much you can earn before your benefits are affected. But those who can afford to wait and who expect to live to a ripe old age would do well to consider delaying until their full retirement age, or even beyond, to claim their Social Security benefits. If their life expectancy is at least “average” they’ll collect much more in cumulative lifetime benefits by doing so.

Can My Mother Get Benefits from Common Law Marriage?

Dear Rusty: My 71-year-old mother has a very small Social Security income. It is not enough to find her housing. I am working to file for increased VA benefits, as she is a veteran. Her partner of 21 years (common law spouse) has passed away, and we have an appointment next week to apply for spousal benefits. First question: We have the option of applying for her partner’s SS benefits, and we are completing the form SSA-753 statement regarding marriage. Is there anything else I should have to be prepared for the appointment? Second question: My mother and father were married for 27 years before they divorced. I was going to request filing for his benefits as it is easier to prove than a common law relationship. Is there anything else you could recommend being prepared for the appointment? Signed: Concerned Daughter

Dear Concerned Daughter: Whether your mother will be able to collect a survivor benefit from her “common law” spouse will depend upon the state in which their relationship was established. Social Security’s rules specify that for their relationship to be recognized as a “marriage” for Social Security benefit purposes, it must have been established in a U.S. State which recognizes “common law” marriage. And only a small number of U.S. states currently do.

For clarity, it is only required that the relationship be established in a State which recognizes “common law” marriage. If their relationship started in a state which recognizes it, and they subsequently moved to and resided in another state which doesn’t, SS will recognize that relationship as a valid marriage and your mother will be entitled to survivor benefits based upon the deceased’s SS record (100% of the deceased’s benefit amount).

States which currently recognize “common law” marriage are Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah, plus the District of Columbia. A number of other States previously recognized common law marriage but have since stopped doing so. If the relationship was established in a state which, at the time, recognized common law marriage, Social Security will also recognize the marriage. Various U.S. states have, over the years, changed their laws regarding common law marriage, and Social Security will evaluate your mother’s eligibility for survivor benefits based upon where and when the common law relationship was established. They will be looking for proof of the marriage relationship, such as joint bank account statements, joint asset ownership records (e.g., a car registered in both names, joint home ownership, etc.) and it would be good to have multiple forms of such proof available. They may also require a copy of the death certificate for her common law spouse and, obviously, his Social Security number.

Regarding your mother’s other alternative for benefits from her marriage to your father, if your mother and father were married for 27 years, she may be eligible for a spousal benefit from your father as his ex-spouse. If your father is still living, and if she isn’t eligible for an SS survivor benefit from her common law relationship (SS doesn’t recognize her common law marriage), your mother may still be eligible for as much as 50% of what your father’s SS benefit was at his full retirement age (FRA), plus any COLA increases given since his benefits started. Spouse benefits from a living ex-spouse are not as much as the survivor benefit from a current spouse – the survivor benefit is up to 100% of what the deceased spouse was receiving at death; the benefit from a living ex-spouse is up to 50% of the ex-spouse’s FRA benefit amount (if that is more than your mother is eligible for on her own SS record). Of course, if your father is deceased, your mother would be eligible for a survivor benefit on his record, which would be equal to 100% of the benefit amount your father was receiving at his death.

This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at ssadvisor@amacfoundation.org.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)


Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today