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Special rules for widows & widowers

Surviving spouses can claim benefits as early as age 60.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Claim survivors benefits at age 60

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.

Claim early at age 62

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.

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

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

Claim at full retirement age

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?*

Wait until age 70 to claim benefits

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.

Claim anytime in between

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.

Go to benefits.gov to see which benefits you qualify for External site

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.

Your Social Security guide


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REFERENCE CONTENT

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Survivors benefits

Benefits paid to the surviving spouse or potentially other family members of a deceased eligible worker.

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Earnings record

The history of your earnings for the years you worked.

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Full retirement age (FRA)

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).

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Survivors benefits

Benefits paid to the surviving spouse or potentially other family members of a deceased eligible worker.

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Earnings record

The history of your earnings for the years you worked.

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Earnings record

The history of your earnings for the years you worked.

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Survivors benefits

Benefits paid to the surviving spouse or potentially other family members of a deceased eligible worker.

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Full retirement age (FRA)

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).

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Claiming survivors benefits at 60

Rodney is age 58 and plans to retire at age 60. His primary insurance amount (PIA) at age 66 and 6 months (his full retirement age) is $2,200. His wife Helen passed away last year at age 56 with a PIA of $1,800. At age 60, Rodney applies to receive a reduced monthly survivors benefit of $1,287. He continues to receive the survivors benefits until age 70 when he can collect the maximum based on his own earnings record, which has grown to $2,816 per month.

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Earnings record

The history of your earnings for the years you worked.

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Full retirement age (FRA)

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).

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Switching to survivors benefits

Nancy is approaching age 62 and is considering retirement. Based on her earnings record, her primary insurance amount (PIA) at age 66 (her full retirement age) will be $800. Her husband Gary passed away last year at age 63 before claiming Social Security; his PIA was $2,100. At age 62, Nancy files for her own benefits, receiving a reduced benefit of $600 per month. At her FRA, Nancy files to collect the full $2,100 monthly survivors benefit based on Gary's earnings history.

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The "reset" rule

Deborah started to receive Social Security benefits at age 64. Nearly a year later, she's working again and she wishes she'd waited until her full retirement age (FRA) so that she could have received higher benefits. Deborah can pay back all the payments she received, without interest, and file paperwork with the Social Security Administration to stop her benefits and withdraw her application.

By doing that, she "resets" her Social Security benefits so that when she starts to collect again, she'll receive a higher benefit amount based on her age. Deborah needs to consider the source of the funds she's required to return to Social Security. Using taxable assets or taking a distribution from a retirement account may be the most tax-efficient means of raising funds for the payback.

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Full retirement age (FRA)

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).

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Voluntary suspension

Cheryl, age 61, is starting to look at her Social Security options.

  • If she claims early, at age 62, her benefits would be reduced by 25% to $750 a month.
  • If she claims her benefits at her full retirement age (FRA) of 66, she'll be due $1,000 a month.
  • If she waits until age 70 to claim, that number would rise 32% to $1,320 a month (in real, inflation-adjusted terms).

Now, if Cheryl claims early (the "start"), she can voluntarily suspend her benefits at age 66 (the "stop").

Then when she resumes her benefits at age 70 (the second "start"), that $750 she had been receiving before she suspended her benefits would rise by 32% to $990 a month. That payment is significantly higher than $750, but it's far lower than the $1,320 she'd receive if she waited until age 70 to claim benefits initially.*


*Sources: Vanguard calculations, based on data from Society of Actuaries, 2014, RP-2014 Mortality Tables Report (Schaumberg, Ill.: Society of Actuaries), and Society of Actuaries, 2014, Mortality Improvement Scale MP-2014 Report (Schaumberg, Ill.: Society of Actuaries).

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Full retirement age

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).

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Primary insurance amount (PIA)

Also known as the full monthly benefit amount, the Social Security benefits you'll receive if you start collecting at your full retirement age (FRA). The benefits are based on your historical earnings.

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Primary insurance amount (PIA)

Also known as the full monthly benefit amount, the Social Security benefits you'll receive if you start collecting at your full retirement age (FRA). The benefits are based on your historical earnings.

Layer opened.

Full retirement age (FRA)

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).

Layer opened.

Full retirement age (FRA)

The age at which you're eligible for your full monthly benefits, also known as the primary insurance amount (PIA). The Social Security Administration sometimes refers to full retirement age as "normal retirement age" (NRA).