Social Security Q&A: How Can We Maximize My Spouse’s Survivor’s Benefit?

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Question: I will be 63 in October, and my wife turned 63 in May. She quit work in 2012, while I plan to retire in January when we are both going to start taking our Social Security payments along with my pension. My question is, if I die before her, what Social Security benefit does she continue to receive — mine or hers? My monthly Social Security payment is almost twice what hers is. In the event of my death, she will continue to receive my pension.

Answer: ​Before answering your specific question, I need to caution that with you both taking your retirement benefits early — at age 64, not age 70 — you will A) both receive permanently lower retirement benefits, B) forego having one of you (your wife would be best) take a full spousal benefit starting at full retirement age while letting her own retirement benefit continue to grow until 70, and C) permanently reduce the widows benefit that she’ll receive once you pass away.

Depending on your earnings histories, doing what you have in mind can mean the loss of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in lifetime benefits. If you can keep working or can tap other resources like retirement accounts to get closer to the Social Security benefit-collection strategy that maximizes your lifetime benefits, consider doing so.

To see what’s at stake you need to run your situation through a highly detailed and accurate Social Security lifetime benefit maximization program. The free online programs, like AARP’s, which I’ve written about in the past, won’t always give you the right answer. They can be misleading, I presume, because their hosts think you don’t have the time to collect and enter the right data and get the right answer and don’t care about potentially leaving huge amounts of money on the table by following the wrong strategy. Another possibility is that they don’t have the technical and software engineering knowledge to make the right calculations.

Now to your specific question. If you take your benefit, as you plan, before full retirement age (specifically at age 64), your wife’s widows benefit will be calculated based on a special and highly complicated widows benefit formula called the RIB-LIM formula, which I discussed in a prior column. But given your situation and assuming you pass away after your wife reaches full retirement age, she will, indeed, receive a widows benefit equal to the retirement benefit you were receiving. But the retirement benefit you were receiving will be lower than it would otherwise have been were you to wait to collect it.

So, to repeat, your taking your retirement benefit early not only lowers your own lifetime retirement benefits, it also lowers your wife’s lifetime widows benefits based on whatever date you die.


When it comes to personal finance, economics and our software care about one thing—your living standard. All questions in personal finance boil down to your living standard. Your decision about when and how to take Social Security can affect your living standard throughout your retirement.

I am a professor of economics and I’ve spent a good part of my academic career studying personal financial behavior. Here’s why my colleagues and I developed Maximize My Social Security. Deciding, on your own, which Social Security benefits to take and in which month to take them is incredibly difficult. Most households face millions of options. You can easily lose tens of thousands of dollars making the wrong choices.

My company’s software, Maximize My Social Security, can help you avoid costly mistakes and instead discover your maximized lifetime household benefits.

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