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5 Ways to Maximize Your Social Security Survivor Benefits


Social Security survivor benefits provide essential financial support to eligible family members and help ensure stability during challenging times. Understanding eligibility criteria, benefit calculation and strategic claiming options can significantly enhance the financial security of survivors. Whether you’re a spouse, child or dependent parent, knowing how to maximize Social Security survivor benefits can make a substantial difference in maintaining your quality of life and financial independence after a significant loss.

A financial advisor can help you reassess your financial needs after a major life event like the death of a family member or birth of a child. Connect with a fiduciary advisor today.

Understanding Survivor Benefits

Social Security survivor benefits serve as a financial safety net for families coping with the loss of a wage earner. The Social Security Administration reports that an average of around 5.95 million individuals received survivor benefits each year between 2014 and 2023, underscoring the significant role these benefits play in supporting American families. 

Survivor benefits under the Social Security Act are accessible to various groups, each subject to specific eligibility criteria. Spouses, surviving children, divorced spouses and dependent parents can qualify for these benefits if they meet certain conditions:

  • Surviving spouses: A surviving spouse is eligible if they are 60 or older, 50 or older and disabled, or any age if they’re caring for the deceased’s child under age 16.
  • Surviving children: Children can receive benefits if they are unmarried and under 18 (or up to 19 for elementary and secondary students) or any age if they were disabled before age 22.
  • Divorced spouses: A divorced spouse can qualify if the marriage lasted 10 years or more and remain unmarried, or they remarried after age 60, (or 50 and were disabled).
  • Parents: Dependent parents who were financially dependent on the deceased (for at least half of their support) may receive benefits if they are age 62 or older.

Stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and adopted children also may be eligible under certain conditions, as well.

How Are Survivor Benefits Calculated?

Spouses are eligible for survivor benefits at any age if they are caring for the deceased's child and the child is under age 16.

The calculation of survivor benefits is based on a formula that considers the deceased worker’s average indexed monthly earnings (AIME) and applies the primary insurance amount (PIA). The calculation principles are structured to ensure that the benefits are fair and proportional to the contributions made by the deceased during their working life. 

The percentage of the deceased worker’s benefit amount that each survivor receives varies significantly among different groups:

  • A surviving spouse at full retirement age or older receives 100% of the benefit.
  • A surviving spouse between 60 and full retirement age receives between 71.5% and 99%.
  • A surviving spouse with a disability aged 50 through 59 gets 71.5%.
  • A surviving spouse of any age caring for a child under 16 receives 75%.
  • A child under 18, or up to 19 if still in school, or who has a disability, also receives 75%.
  • One surviving parent receives 82.5%, while two surviving parents each receive 75%.

Ways to Maximize Your Social Security Survivor Benefits

A widow contemplates how to maximize Social Security survivor benefits following the death of her husband.

Let’s take the example of a widow, at age 59, who is thinking about when to claim survivor benefits. She knows that waiting until full retirement age would increase her monthly benefits, but her immediate financial needs are pressing. This example shows the importance of strategic planning when it comes to Social Security survivor benefits. Here are five common ways to potentially maximize your Social Security survivor benefits:

1. Know When to Claim

Claiming benefits at the right time can substantially affect the monthly payments you get. Surviving spouses, for example, can begin claiming reduced benefits as early as age 60, but these are lower than if one waits until reaching their full retirement age, which is typically between 66 and 67. At full retirement age, surviving spouses are entitled to 100% of the deceased’s benefit amount. Claiming before this age results in a permanent reduction of benefits, while delaying the claim can increase the monthly benefit amount. This decision should be balanced with immediate financial needs and long-term financial security.

2. Consider the Impact of Employment

Continuing to work while receiving survivor benefits can also impact the benefit amount due to earnings limits set by the Social Security Administration. The earnings limits in 2024 are:

  • $22,320 for those below full retirement age
  • $59,520 during the year they will reach full retirement age

Benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 earned above the limit for those below full retirement age, and $1 for every $3 over the limit for those during the year that they will reach full retirement age. Once they reach full retirement age, there is no earnings limit. For example, a 63-year-old survivor earning $25,000 in 2024 would see their benefits reduced by $1,340.

3. Switch Between Benefits

Survivors may find themselves eligible for both their own retirement benefits and survivor benefits. However, they cannot receive both benefits in full simultaneously. This will require them to make a strategic decision to maximize lifetime income. For example, a survivor might opt to take reduced survivor benefits early and later switch to their own retirement benefits if these are higher, depending on their lifetime earnings and the deceased’s earnings. This strategy allows flexibility in managing resources and adapting to changing financial circumstances over time.

4. Maximize Total Family Benefit

The total family benefit from a worker’s Social Security record can range from 150% to 180% of the worker’s basic benefit, depending on the number of eligible family members. Each additional family member, such as a dependent child or parent, typically increases the total family benefit by about 15% until the maximum cap is reached. This cap ensures that the total distributed benefits do not disproportionately exceed the intended Social Security provisions. Families should consider how the distribution of benefits among members can maximize the total family income provided through Social Security.

5. Understand the Impact of Remarriage

The implications of remarriage on survivor benefits are particularly significant. If a survivor remarries before the age of 60 (or 50 if disabled), they generally lose the ability to collect survivor benefits based on their late spouse’s record unless the subsequent marriage ends. However, if remarriage occurs at age 60 or older, survivor benefits can still be claimed based on the deceased spouse’s record. Additionally, benefits from a current spouse can also be considered if they are higher.

So, for example, if widower remarries at age 62, because he’s over 60 years old, he’ll be able to continue receiving survivor benefits from his late wife while also evaluating the potential benefits from his new spouse.

Bottom Line

Social Security survivor benefits can provide additional financial stability to families after the loss of a wage earner. By considering the timing of claims, the impact of employment on benefits, the possibility of switching between different types of benefits and the implications of family dynamics and remarriage, individuals can make informed decisions that optimize their financial resources.

Social Security Planning Tips

  • Deciding when to claim your Social Security benefits is one of the most important decisions that many people make in the retirement planning process. Calculating your break even age – the age at which you’ll maximize your benefits based on your life expectancy – can help you make this decision. After all, delaying Social Security until age 70 will produce the largest benefit possible, but it may make more sense to start collecting earlier if you don’t expect to live deep into your 80s or 90s.
  • A financial advisor can help you plan for Social Security and decide when a good time is to claim your benefits. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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