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Living in retirement

Special rules for widows and widowers

Surviving spouses can claim benefits as early as age 60.
4 minute read

Points to know

  • If you're eligible, you may be able to start collecting reduced survivors benefits as early as age 60.
  • You can switch to your own benefits later, as early as age 62 or as late as age 70.
  • You may also be eligible for a onetime Social Security death benefit.

Start with your benefits estimates

As a widow or widower, you have the option to claim Social Security survivors benefits as early as age 60, if your deceased spouse's earnings record qualified him or her for Social Security.

The survivors benefits that you'd receive at 60 would be reduced, but you can switch to benefits based on your record later (as early as when you turn 62), which may be higher than the survivors benefits. In the meantime, you can get your benefits estimates by visiting the Social Security Administration (SSA) website.

You can compare the estimates of what you'd receive based on your own record against what you could receive based on your deceased spouse's record. Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to schedule an appointment.

GET YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY ESTIMATES

The Social Security Administration (SSA) website provides estimates for how much you'll collect if you start receiving benefits at age 62, your full retirement age (FRA) (between 66 and 67), and age 70.

Factors that could reduce your payments

Before you plug your Social Security estimates into your retirement plan, be sure to adjust those estimates if any of these factors apply to see how much you might actually end up with.

Working while you collect Social Security may temporarily reduce your benefits

You may pay federal & state taxes on your payments

Your Medicare premiums may be deducted from your payments

A government pension could decrease your benefits

Whose earnings record should you collect on?

At age 60, you can only file for survivors benefits based on your deceased spouse's earnings record. Even if you remarry after 60, you can still claim survivors benefits.

Learn what benefits you may be eligible for if you've remarried

At age 62, you qualify for benefits based on your own record. If the benefits based on your record are higher, you'll receive the higher payment.

When you apply for Social Security, you'll automatically receive the highest benefits to which you're entitled.

Figure out the best time to claim

As you consider the right time to start collecting Social Security, remember that if you decide to delay, you can revisit that decision as often as you'd like.

You can claim based on your deceased spouse's earnings record at age 60. The survivors benefits that you'd receive at 60 would be reduced; check with the SSA to learn how much you'd receive.

If you claim survivors benefits earlier than age 62, you can switch to your own record later if the benefits based on your record would be higher. So you could collect on your deceased spouse's record until age 62, your full retirement age (FRA), age 70, or anytime in between.

Remember that the longer you wait to collect on your own record, the higher your benefits will be.

Anyone who's paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years can start to receive retirement benefits as early as age 62 based on his or her own earnings record. And a surviving spouse can collect on his or her own record first, then switch to the deceased spouse's record at the surviving spouse's full retirement age (FRA) if the deceased spouse's benefits are higher.

See how it works: Switching to survivors benefits

See how it works: Switching to survivors benefits

Collecting Social Security at 62 has some advantages. For example, you may be ready to retire and counting on Social Security as the cornerstone of your retirement plan. After all, if you've paid 10 years of Social Security taxes, then you're entitled to Social Security benefits.

If you have serious health problems or a family history that suggests you may not live long enough to profit from waiting, collecting early might make the most sense for you.

On the other hand, the earlier you start to collect, the less you'll receive each month. But if you start to collect and then change your mind, you have 2 options.

The "reset" rule

Within 12 months of starting to collect, you can "reset" your benefits to erase the reduction, but you must repay all of the benefits you and your family earned.

See how it works: The "reset" rule

See how it works: The "reset" rule

The voluntary suspension rule

If you started collecting before your full retirement age (FRA), you can suspend your benefits at FRA and restart them later.

See how it works: Voluntary suspension

See how it works: Voluntary suspension

If you start collecting Social Security retirement benefits at your full retirement age (FRA), you'll receive 100% of your primary insurance amount (PIA). But remember that you can collect more than 100% of your PIA by waiting beyond your FRA.

You'll earn an extra 0.67% each month that you delay your Social Security benefits past your FRA. That's an extra 8% for each year that you wait past FRA … and what other investment can guarantee an 8% annual increase?*

If you can wait until you're 70, you'll receive your highest Social Security payments—up to 132% of your primary insurance amount (PIA) if your full retirement age (FRA) is 66, or 124% of your PIA if your FRA is 67.

Of course, you don't have to file when you reach one of the milestones listed above—62, full retirement age (FRA), or 70. You can apply for survivors benefits as early as age 60 and for your own Social Security retirement benefits anytime between the ages of 62 and 70.

Death benefit

If you meet certain requirements, you may be eligible for a onetime benefit of $255 following the death of your spouse. You must apply for the benefit within 2 years of your spouse's date of death. Call the SSA at 800-722-1213 to apply.

What's next?

Social Security provides more than just retirement benefits. And the federal government offers more than just Social Security benefits. As you put your retirement plan together, check to see whether you qualify for other government benefits, such as family and children services, tax assistance, and active military or veterans benefits.

Apply for Social Security

You can't apply online for survivors benefits. Call the SSA at 800-722-1213 to schedule an appointment.
 

You may need to produce these documents when you apply

  • Your Social Security card.
  • Your deceased spouse's Social Security number.
  • An original birth certificate or other proof of your birth.
  • A copy of your deceased spouse's W-2 forms or self-employment tax return for the last year.
  • Your marriage certificate.
  • A death certificate or other proof of death from a funeral home.
  • If you weren't born in the United States, proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status.

A Vanguard advisor can help

If you're struggling with making your best Social Security decision, we can help. You'll also get a custom financial plan, ongoing portfolio management, investment coaching, and real-time goal tracking—all at a low cost.

Reach your goals with advice from Vanguard

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More help

Build your Social Security strategy

Read our Social Security brochure

Download Introduction to Social Security 

Partner with a Vanguard advisor or call 800-962-5028 to speak with an investment professional.

Partner with a Vanguard advisor or call 800-962-5028 to speak with an investment professional.

*The amount of your monthly benefits also increases for each month you wait between age 62 and your FRA, but the rate is lower than 8% per year and varies depending on your age.

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