Social Security survivor benefits can be confusing. Here’s how they work

A person holds a Social Security card
The earlier you start Social Security benefits — survivor, spousal or your own — the less you get.
(Jenny Kane / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: My husband passed away, and I am 59 years old and no longer working. Social Security’s site says that once I turn 60, I can get 71.5% to 99% of what he would have received at his full retirement age. What determines whether I get 71.5% or 99% or something in between?

Answer: The range you mention applies when you start survivor benefits before your own full retirement age for such benefits. For people born in 1962 and later, the full retirement age for survivor benefits is 67.

(This is different from the full retirement age for retirement benefits, which is 67 for people born in 1960 and later. Just in case you thought Social Security benefits weren’t quite complicated enough.)


It also matters if your husband was receiving Social Security benefits when he died. If so, the survivor benefit would be based on that check. If not, the survivor benefit would be based on the amount he would have gotten at his full retirement age (if he died at or before that age) or the benefit he earned (if he died after full retirement age).

In general, though, the earlier you start Social Security benefits, the less you get. If you start survivor benefits at 60, then you’d get 71.5% of your husband’s benefit. If you wait until right before you turn 67, you could get 99%. If you wait until you turn 67, you get 100%.

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Feb. 26, 2023

Your check also could be reduced if you start survivor benefits early and then go back to work. The earnings test would reduce your check by $1 for every $2 you earned over a certain limit, which in 2023 is $21,240. The earnings test would apply until you turned 67.

Something else you should consider is the Social Security benefit you’ve earned based on your own work record. This benefit can continue to grow if you put off claiming it until the amount maxes out at age 70.

You’re also allowed to switch between survivor benefits and your own, or vice versa. (Switching is something that’s not typically allowed with other benefits, such as spousal benefits.)

You could start receiving reduced survivor benefits at 60 and switch to your own maxed-out benefit at 70 — or start your own reduced benefit at 62 and switch to the unreduced survivor benefit at 67, for example. The right course will depend on the amounts involved and the math can be complicated, so consider consulting a financial planner or Social Security claiming strategy sites such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security.


Delaying Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I get conflicting answers on whether my wife, who turns 62 in April, should take her Social Security now. I am 68 and am holding off taking my benefits until 70. Will her survivor benefits include the 8% annual increase I will receive when I start benefits in September 2024? And should she take her benefits now at age 62 (especially since we both plan to retire this year)?

The higher earner’s benefit determines what the survivor gets. By delaying Social Security, the higher earner boosts how much the remaining spouse will have to make ends meet.

Feb. 19, 2023

Answer: Your wife’s survivor benefit would include the delayed retirement credits you’re earning by putting off your application. In other words, if you died tomorrow, her survivor check would be about 20% larger because you waited. (That assumes you turned your full retirement age of 66 in September 2020, and have earned about 2.5 years’ worth of 8% annual increases.)

If you make it to 70, she would receive all four years’ worth of 8% annual increases (plus, of course, all the cost-of-living increases your benefit earned in the meantime).

Because your benefit determines the survivor’s benefit, it’s more important for you to delay than for her to put off her application. Still, she most likely will maximize her lifetime benefit by delaying if she can.

The right strategy depends on the details of your financial situation, so consider consulting a fee-only financial planner for personalized advice.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at