Social Security’s rules for collecting benefits are complicated. Benefits for widows are calculated differently than traditional retirement benefits, so there are a few key rules and strategies that you need to be aware of if you find yourself in that situation. Below are seven things you need to know about Social Security survivor benefits.

1: Switching

You cannot combine your survivor benefits and regular retirement benefits, but you can switch between the two in order to maximize the total combined value you receive. Each benefit calculation works differently, which allows you to receive additional benefits by strategically switching at certain ages like 62, full retirement age, and 70. Survivor benefits are available as early as age 60 and reach their maximum value at full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67, depending on when you were born. Retirement benefits first become available at age 62 and reach their maximum at age 70. In general, it is best to first determine which of your benefits has the highest maximum monthly benefit; this is the benefit that should be deferred. The smaller of the two benefits should be claimed first.

2: Working

If you are still working and haven’t reached full retirement age, which is between 66 and 67, Social Security’s earnings test may temporarily reduce or eliminate your benefits. In 2024, you can earn up to $22,320 annually free of restrictions, but benefits are phased out after that point. For every $2 of earnings above the limit, $1 of benefits are reduced. Only earned income is included in the earnings test; income from pensions, retirement accounts, dividends, interest, and other passive income do not come into play.

There is a more favorable earnings test calculation that comes into play in the year you reach full retirement age. The exempt amount is $59,520, and $1 of benefits are withheld for every $3 of earnings over the exempt amount. For some, it may make sense to develop a plan to transition into part-time employment to avoid the earnings test limitations and maximize benefits.

3: Taxes

A complex formula determines how much, if any, of your Social Security income is taxable. Your state may tax your benefits as well. If Social Security is your only source of income, you won’t owe any Federal income taxes. As your income increases, more of your benefits become taxable, up to a maximum of 85% taxability. At a minimum, 15% of your Social Security benefits will be tax-free.

4: Agents

A common frustration among surviving spouses is that they received little, if any, helpful guidance from agents at the Social Security office. Much of that frustration is because those agents are not equipped to provide a comprehensive strategy that will maximize lifetime benefits, which can often cause surviving spouses to miss out on lucrative switching strategies. Educating yourself on your options prior to meeting with a Social Security agent is the best way to ensure you maximize the value of the benefits you are entitled to.

5: Pensions

For those who receive a pension for work performed outside of the Social Security system, the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) may impact your survivor benefits and/or retirement benefits. This typically impacts federal, state, and municipal employees, along with teachers in certain states (California, Illinois, and Texas, most notably).

If you receive one of these pensions, the GPO may reduce any survivor benefits you are entitled to. The GPO looks at the amount of your “non-covered” pension and multiplies it by two-thirds. The result is the amount of the GPO, which is subtracted from your survivor benefit.

The WEP does not impact survivor benefits, but it may reduce the retirement benefits you receive if you have work that was both “covered” and “non-covered” by Social Security. The Social Security Administration has multiple tools to help you determine the impact of the WEP on your benefits.

6: Do-Over

Even if you have already claimed one of your benefits, there is usually an opportunity to alter your claiming strategy. This provides a mechanism to correct any mistakes. Generally, you can repeal your application for benefits within the first 12 months, provided you return any funds you’ve received. Often, surviving spouses will also have the opportunity to alter their claiming strategy beyond that 12-month point. This can allow you to defer a benefit until it reaches its maximum value. In certain circumstances, you may even be entitled to retroactive benefits.

7: Marriage

If you are thinking about getting remarried, it’s important to understand how your various benefits may be impacted. While getting remarried may entitle you to new spousal benefits, it could also impact your preexisting survivor benefits. If you remarry before age 60, your survivor benefits will no longer be available. By waiting until after 60, you will preserve those survivor benefits for the rest of your life. You would also be eligible to claim spousal benefits as well.


This is intended for educational purposes only and should not be construed as personalized financial or investment advice. Please consult your financial and investment professional(s) regarding your unique situation.

Author Justin D. Smith Financial Advisor

Justin has been involved in the financial services industry since 2005. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and is a frequent speaker on tax-smart retirement planning.

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