Q & A
Ask Rusty – Widow’s Benefit if Spouse Dies Before Applying
Dear Rusty: I was born in 1951 and have not yet applied for my Social Security benefits, and I know that when I reach my full retirement age this year I will be able to get 100% of the benefit I’m entitled to. However, I don’t really need the extra money right now, so I’m thinking of not applying and letting the monthly payment grow by 8% annually until 2021 and then start collecting at age 70. What happens if I die before I start collecting, relative to my wife’s ability to collect benefits normally provided to a surviving spouse of the deceased? Signed: Concerned for Her
Dear Concerned: Since you were born in 1951, your Social Security full retirement age (FRA) is 66. And you are correct that if you don’t apply for Social Security at that time, your benefit will grow at a rate of 8% per year (actually, 2/3rds of 1% per month) until you reach age 70. If you die before you start collecting, your spouse will be entitled to receive whatever Social Security benefit you would be entitled to if you were still alive. Social Security will compute what you would have been entitled to at your death, and your spouse would be eligible to get that amount, provided she had already reached her Social Security full retirement age; however if she had not reached her full retirement age (which as a widow may be less than her regular FRA), she would be subject to a benefit reduction. Her full retirement age as a widow would be calculated by defining her birth year as two years earlier than her actual birth year.
Since you didn’t tell me your wife’s age, I’ll just give you the general rules: If she has already reached her widow’s full retirement age, she will get 100% of the benefit you were entitled to at death (including your increase for delaying). If she’s younger than her full retirement age, the benefit she gets would be reduced. Assuming she was born somewhere between 1945-1956, the reduction would be 0.396% per month for each month prior to her widow’s full retirement age. The earliest she can apply for widow’s benefit is age 60, and at that age she would only get 71.5% of your benefit. But if she’s younger than her full retirement age, she doesn’t have to apply for widow’s benefits at your death – she can avoid the reduction by waiting until her full retirement age to apply. She shouldn’t wait beyond her FRA to apply because survivor’s benefits don’t grow after she reaches her widow’s full retirement age.