Part of the money we pay in Social Security taxes goes toward survivors insurance, and when your spouse dies, you could be eligible for benefits. You may also be entitled to your own retirement benefits based on your own work. In that case you need to determine how to claim the Social Security benefits to which you are entitled. That may depend on the relative earnings each of you has had during your working lives, which determines the amount of your benefits.
Surviving spouse benefits
According to the Social Security Administration, as a widow or widower you can receive full benefits at your full retirement age as a survivor. If you were born between 1945 and 1956, your full retirement age as a survivor is 66. This age gradually increases to 67 if you were born in 1962 or later. You can find a chart on the Social Security Administration website that shows your full survivor’s retirement age based on the year you were born, and the reduced benefit you would receive at age 62.
Widows and widowers can receive reduced benefits starting at age 60 and if they are disabled, as early as age 50. If you are a widow or widower and take care of your child who is receiving Social Security benefits and is less than 16 years old or disabled, you can receive survivor benefits at any age. By clicking on the year of your birth in the above-referenced chart, you can find the reduced benefit you would receive if you start receiving survivors’ benefits at age 60. For example, if you were born between 1945 and 1956, at age 60 your benefit would be 71.5% of the survivor’s benefit you would receive at your full retirement age.
Divorced surviving spouse
If you are a divorced surviving spouse, you can still claim benefits provided your marriage lasted at least 10 years. But if you are caring for a natural or legally adopted child of your former spouse who is under age 16 or disabled and is receiving Social Security benefits, you do not have to meet that length of marriage requirement.
If you work while receiving survivor benefits
If you work while you are receiving Social Security survivor benefits, your survivor benefit is reduced until you reach full retirement age, but you could also be building up a higher benefit for yourself when you retire. If you are under retirement age for the full year, your benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over the annual limit, which is $14,160 for 2010. In the year you reach full retirement age your benefits are reduced by $1 for every $3 you earn over the annual limit for that year, which is $37,680 for 2010. This reduction is only for the months of the year until you reach full retirement age. Once you reach that age, no reduction is made, regardless of how much you earn. After you reach full retirement age, the Social Security Administration recalculates your benefit amount, leaving out the months you received reduced benefits because you were working.
Switching from survivor benefits to your own retirement benefits
If you are receiving survivor’s benefits and you are also entitled to Social Security retirement benefits based on your own work record, you can switch to your own benefits when you are eligible if those benefits are higher. You could start receiving your own retirement benefits early at age 62 with a reduced benefit, or you could delay receiving your own benefits until you reach full retirement age or later and receive a higher monthly benefit. The determination as to when to switch over will depend on the relative amounts involved, and your own financial and personal situation.
Social Security benefits for the surviving spouse by year of birth – Social Security Administration
Widows, Widowers & Other Survivors – Social Security Administration