Social Security Planning: Ways to Avoid Unnecessary Penalties Upon Spouse’s Death

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As you plan for retirement, you may want to make sure you can max out your social security benefits. But the death of a spouse can change your retirement plans in many ways — including financially.

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If Social Security benefits are a part of your retirement income, it’s important to be aware that you cannot collect your own social security benefits plus those of a deceased spouse at the same time. Social Security pays out the greater of the two amounts.

The National Academy of Social Insurance says that 3.7 million individuals have no social security benefits of their own but collect based on their deceased spouse’s work record. Another 3.8 million are entitled to benefits but receive benefits as a surviving spouse, instead, because the amount is higher.

In most cases, the surviving spouse receives Social Security benefits equal to their spouse’s full benefit amount. The couple must have been married at least nine months before the time of death and the surviving spouse must be at least 60 years old to collect benefits.

But that’s not always the case.

You can take action now to ensure that you can avoid unnecessary penalties on your social security benefits if your spouse dies.

Retire Comfortably

Make sure your spouse doesn’t start collecting benefits until full retirement age.

If your spouse begins collecting benefits before full retirement age, your spousal benefits will be reduced. Full retirement age varies depending on the year you were born, but ranges from age 66 to 67. Your spouse can also increase the amount of their benefits, as well as survivor benefits you may receive, by delaying filing until they reach age 70.

Do not claim survivor benefits before you reach full retirement age.

You can claim survivor benefits as early as age 60, and at age 50 if you are disabled. But this may not be the best financial choice if you want to avoid penalties. If you claim survivor benefits before your full retirement age (which is age 66 if you were born in 1956 and gradually increases to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later), your benefits will be reduced by anywhere from 71.5% to 99%.

Do not remarry before you reach age 60 (50 if you are disabled).

If your spouse dies before you reach age 60, you can collect survivor benefits once you turn 60 years old, unless you remarried before your 60th birthday. If so, you cannot collect survivor benefits. If you remarry past age 60 (50 if disabled) you can continue collecting survivor benefits.

Be aware of earnings limits if you are still working.

You can collect survivor benefits while you continue to work, but it’s important to be aware of earnings limits, which will reduce the amount of your benefits if you have not reached full retirement age. Earnings caps change annually and vary based on your age.

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If you are eligible for survivor benefits and are already collecting social security benefits based on your spouse’s work record, they will kick in immediately once your spouse’s death is recorded. If you are collecting social security benefits based on your own work record, or not collecting benefits at all, you’ll need to apply for survivor benefits. The best way to do so, according to AARP.org, is to call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 and set up an appointment.