Dear Rusty: My friend and I, both very recently widowed, were discussing our future and, based upon the suggestion of other friends, need to explore applying to Social Security for survivor’s benefits. We’ve tried to research this online and by talking to another widowed friend, but we’ve ended up more uncertain than ever about whether we’re even eligible. We’re both in our 50s, and we sure could use some help understanding our options. Signed: Needing to Know
Dear Needing: To tackle this somewhat complicated topic, let’s first understand that the Full Retirement Age (FRA) for widows and widowers is different from Social Security’s normal full retirement age. Widow(er)s get a two year dispensation on their birthdate, meaning that their FRA is computed as though they were born two years earlier than their actual birthdate, resulting in an earlier FRA (which affects when they can collect their full survivor’s benefit). The eligibility rules for survivor’s benefits are as follows:
Widow(er)s become eligible for reduced survivor’s benefits at age 60 (50 if they’re disabled) rather than the normal 62, and they must have been married to the deceased for at least 9 months (unless the death was accidental).
Widow(er)s may be eligible for survivor’s benefits at any age if they are caring for the deceased’s dependent child who is under 16 years of age, or child who is disabled and collecting benefits based on the deceased’s work record. Note, too, that in addition to the widow(er), dependent children under the age of 18 (or 19 if still in school) may be able to receive survivor’s benefits also.
A widow(er) who remarries before becoming eligible cannot collect survivor’s benefits on the deceased spouse’s record; remarriage after age 60 (or age 50 if disabled) is okay.
The survivor eligibility requirement for divorced spouses is different. A divorced spouse must have been married to the deceased for at least 10 years and divorced for at least 2 years to be eligible for widow(er)s benefits.
Although you may be eligible to receive survivor benefits earlier than your full retirement age, to do so will mean that your benefit will be reduced by as much as 28.5%. Waiting beyond your initial eligibility date will earn another 0.00475% for each month deferred, up to the “widow limit”, often referred to as RIB LIM (Retirement Insurance Benefit Limit). If the survivor starts benefits earlier than their FRA, RIB LIM caps their benefit at the larger of a) the amount the deceased would receive if he or she were still alive, or b) if the deceased claimed prior to their FRA, 82.5% of the deceased’s benefit at FRA.
To simplify what this means, if the deceased started benefits at FRA or later, the widow(er) would (at FRA) be entitled to 100 percent of the amount the deceased was collecting. But if the deceased had started benefits before their FRA, the widow(er) would (at FRA) be entitled to a minimum of 82.5% of the amount the deceased’s primary insurance amount (PIA), the amount the deceased would have gotten at FRA. Basically, the “widow’s limit”, or RIB LIM, only applies if the deceased started benefits before their full retirement age.
And one final note: While waiting until your widow’s full retirement age to apply will give you the largest payment, since survivor’s benefits do not earn Delayed Retirement Credits there is no reason to wait beyond your full retirement age to start collecting. And if your deceased spouse or ex-spouse took their benefit early, you may actually reach the maximum survivor benefit before you reach your widow FRA.