Weekend Reading: Social Security Spousal Benefit or Survivor Benefit? Consider the Differences

This article appears as part of Casey Weade's Weekend Reading for Retirees series. Every Friday, Casey highlights four hand-picked articles on trending retirement topics and delivers them straight to your email inbox. Get on the list here.
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Weekend Reading

Navigating your way through the complexities of Social Security can feel overwhelming. Add on the passing of a spouse, and it can become even more perplexing.


Understanding spousal benefits: While spousal benefits and survivor benefits might sound the same, that’s about the only thing they have in common. At full retirement age, spousal benefits are capped at 50 percent. If they begin before age 62, there is a reduction in benefit. As soon as spouse number one files for Social Security, it opens the door for spouse number two to receive benefits as well (at 50 percent), based on spouse number one’s retirement age work record. Additionally, for those born after January 1, 1954, if spouse number two earned benefits from their own work record, those are always paid first, with any remaining benefit paid through the spousal benefits.

Understanding survivor benefits: On the other hand, survivor benefits are paid at 100 percent, and can begin as early as age 60, with a reduction for early filing. However, it’s important to note that regardless which benefits are utilized upon the passing of a spouse, there is always an overall reduction in household Social Security benefits. Essentially, when one person passes, one benefit check will stop.

The Bipartisan Budget Act: Prior to 2015, Social Security recipients were able to take advantage of a unique spousal benefit filing strategy. One spouse was able to file for benefits, while the other filed for spousal benefits and continued to earn delayed retirement credits. The passing of the Bipartisan Budget Act since restricted this option if you are born after January 1, 1954, but it doesn’t apply if one spouse has passed. As a result, the surviving spouse (at full retirement age) can utilize this restricted filing to collect spousal benefits only, all the while continuing to add delayed retirement credits to their own benefit.

Be mindful: Your Social Security arrangements on the front end of retirement will be some of the most important decisions you make, and they’re not as cut and dry as you may think. However, it’s just as important to have a forward-looking perspective, and be aware of all potential options after your decision is made.