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Ask Rusty – About “Survivor” Benefits vs. “Spousal” Benefits

Posted on Monday, May 1, 2023
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by Russell Gloor, AMAC Certified Social Security Advisor
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7 Comments
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Dear Rusty: I will be 70 in August and will file my application for benefits in May. I know I’ll get my maximum possible amount at age 70, but I need you to clarify things I have read.

Per an award-winning TV host, author, and host of a money podcast “if the higher-earning spouse delays until age 70 to claim Social Security, that guarantees the survivor the biggest possible benefit.” But then I read in a different article that if a person delays beyond their full retirement age to obtain a higher personal benefit (like I have), my spouse’s benefit would still be based on my FRA benefit amount. I am confused about which statement is the correct version. Signed: Confused About My Spouse’s Benefit

Dear Confused: I’m not surprised that you are confused about these seemingly contradictory statements. It is, indeed, quite logical (and common) for a widow or widower to think they must apply for a “spousal benefit” from their deceased spouse. And while that’s technically true, those of us who live in this often confusing world of Social Security jargon would say the widow or widower is applying for a survivor benefit, not a spousal benefit. What’s the difference? Well, when you’re speaking with a Social Security representative or an advisor, the term “spousal benefit” means something entirely different than the term “survivor benefit.”

The two articles you mention are. I believe, referring to two different types of Social Security benefit. The term “survivor benefit” is typically used to describe benefits available to a surviving spouse when the higher earner dies, but the term “spousal benefit” is typically used to denote benefits available to a lower earning spouse when both partners are still living. I agree this is confusing, and that distinction was apparently not clear in the articles you read. Therefore, to clear your confusion:

If the higher earning spouse dies and has delayed claiming until age 70, that does, indeed, “guarantee the surviving spouse the biggest possible benefit.” The survivor benefit is based on the full amount the deceased was receiving at death. 

When both spouses are living and the higher-earning spouse delayed until age 70 to claim, their living spouse’s benefit, when the higher-earning spouse claims, will be a maximum of 50% of the higher-earning spouse’s full retirement age (FRA) amount. While both are living, a spouse’s benefit is based on their partner’s FRA amount, regardless of when their partner actually claimed.

So, in your case, your wife’s spousal benefit from you while you are both living will be based on your FRA entitlement, even though you waited longer to claim. But if you die first, your wife’s survivor benefit as your widow will be based on 100% of the amount you were receiving at your death. In effect, both statements you referred to in your question are true considering that they refer to two different benefit types. It is the terminology distinction which frequently causes misunderstanding.

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 [email protected].

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Jason
Jason
10 months ago

How does this affect a windfall situation where spouse 1 is receiving a teacher pension and paid 0 ss taxes (windfall provision). From what I see they get up to 50% of FRA of spouse 2 if they claim spousal coverage, then have that figure reduced by 2/3rds of the pension amount. If there is anything left, they get that. If the pension is too high, they get nothing. The question then becomes, do they get 100% of the survivor benefit despite having Windfall.

Tina
Tina
10 months ago

I lost my husband when he was 62 he had not filed for social security yet.. I was 58 ..I received widows pension at 60 years old and since so young had to take a percentage so my question is will they ever go up as I age to the amount he would have received had he not passed away? It is a big difference for sure

Dennis Madigan
Dennis Madigan
1 year ago

Dear Rusty; I became permanently disabled and started collecting disability benefits at 55 years old,I know that when I hit retirement age that my benefits switch from disability to retirement,I’m 10 years older than my wife,if I pass before her can she immediately start collecting survivor benefits or does she have to reach her retirement age before she can collect my benefits

Kat
Kat
1 year ago

Am I required to notify SS when my spouse dies to collect spousal benefits? What if we have been divorced for years? Does SS automatically assign the benefits?
Thanks for the info!

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