If both the husband and wife receive separate Social Security benefits on their own earnings, and one dies, does the survivor receive half of the benefit of the deceased partner? Would the survivor get both benefits, or one or the other?
—Jean Smith, Dublin, Ohio
A surviving spouse could be eligible for the deceased partner's full Social Security benefit -- depending on the age at which the surviving spouse claims that benefit.
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The key: your age when your spouse dies. If you already have reached your "full retirement age" (as defined by Social Security) when your spouse dies, you generally will be eligible to receive your deceased partner's full benefit. This assumes that your deceased partner's benefit is larger than your current one, based on your earnings history. (You can find your full retirement age at: ssa.gov/retire2/agereduction.htm.)
But if you haven't reached full retirement age when your spouse dies, you will be eligible for somewhat less than 100% of the deceased partner's benefit.
Here's an example: Bob is 70 years old and gets $1,800 a month from Social Security. Marcia, 68, collects $900 a month. Bob dies, and Marcia starts to collect $1,800 a month. The reason: Marcia already has reached full retirement age.
You can start collecting Social Security survivor benefits as early as age 60, but at a reduced rate. You will get a smaller monthly payment than you would by waiting until your full retirement age, because those checks are being spread over a longer time period.
Let's say Marcia is over 60 and hasn't reached her full retirement age when Bob dies (at age 70). Depending on her age, she generally could collect between 71% and 99% of her deceased husband's benefit.
If your spouse dies and you receive, or are eligible for, a Social Security retirement benefit based on your own earnings record, you can either collect your own benefit or your survivor benefit -- but not both at the same time.
One approach: If your full retirement benefit would be higher than your survivor benefit, you might consider taking the reduced survivor benefit until you reach your full retirement age, and then switching to your own retirement benefit. Alternatively, if your full retirement benefit would be lower than your survivor benefit, you could start your retirement benefit as early as age 62, at a reduced level, and then switch to a larger survivor benefit when you reach your full retirement age.
In other words, a surviving spouse can choose to take a survivor benefit at age 60, or his or her own reduced retirement benefit at age 62, and then switch to the full retirement or survivor payment -- whichever he or she hadn't opted for earlier -- upon reaching full retirement age.
The Social Security Administration has resources on its Web site to help explain survivor benefits.
First, try Publication No. 05-1007, "What You Need to Know When You Get Retirement or Survivors Benefits," at ssa.gov/pubs/10077.html.
You might also want to read Publication No. 05-10084, "Survivors Benefits," at ssa.gov/pubs/10084.html.
And there is Publication No. 05-10127, "What Every Woman Should Know," at ssa.gov/pubs/10127.html.
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