Your Money Matters: Social Security benefits for surviving spouses explained

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Kimberly Lankford
Kiplinger's Personal Finance

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A few key decisions can help you lock in a more generous payout, and knowing how much you are eligible to receive if your spouse dies can help with your financial plans:

After your spouse dies, you can either get survivor benefits or receive benefits based on your own work history, but you can't receive both at the same time. But you can take one type of benefit first and let the other grow, then switch to the higher payout later.

The size of your survivor benefit is based on the amount your spouse received (or would have received) when he or she died and when you take the benefit.

If your spouse dies after claiming Social Security, your maximum survivor benefit is generally the amount your spouse was receiving.

If your spouse dies before claiming Social Security and before full retirement age, your maximum survivor benefit will generally be based on the amount he or she would have received at full retirement age. If your spouse dies after full retirement age, your maximum survivor benefit is based on the amount your spouse would have received at the time of death.

You can receive that maximum survivor benefit if you wait until your full retirement age (currently 66) to take the survivor benefits. Survivor benefits do not increase if you wait beyond full retirement age.

You can take survivor benefits as early as age 60, but the amount will be reduced based on the number of months remaining before your full retirement age. (There are special rules if you are disabled or if you are caring for a child younger than age 16). Your survivor payouts may also be reduced if you're receiving benefits before full retirement age and still working.

If you are eligible for both survivor benefits and benefits on your own work record, you could take one first and let the other grow. For example, you could take survivor benefits as early as 60 and let your own retirement benefits grow to the maximum at age 70 and then switch to your benefits if they are higher (your annual benefit on your own record can increase by 8% for every year you wait after full retirement age before taking your own benefits). Or if your own benefit is modest, you can take your own benefit as early as age 62 and then switch to the maximum survivor benefit at full retirement age (the survivor benefit does not continue to grow beyond full retirement age).