What happens if you die before collecting Social Security?

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Q. My understanding is that if a husband waited until age 70 to take Social Security, his wife would not get this amount as his surviving spouse if he dies first. Instead, she’d get the amount for the Social Security payment due the husband at his full retirement age. Can you confirm?
— Widow

A. There’s a lot to learn about how Social Security benefits work.

Social Security allows recipients to delay the receipt of their benefits to age 70 and receive annual increases of up to 8% of their benefits.

If you choose to collect Social Security benefits at full retirement age, your payment is your “primary insurance amount,” said Dawn Brown, a certified financial planner with Lassus Wherley, a subsidiary of Peapack-Gladstone Bank, in New Providence.

She said a surviving spouse can claim benefits based on her husband’s work record.

“The benefit received is based on the primary insurance amount, which is determined at full retirement age, even if her husband delayed claiming benefits until age 70,” Brown said.

A surviving spouse is entitled to claim benefits under the following scenarios:

  • At full retirement age
  • At age 60
  • At age 50 is disabled
  • At any age if caring for a child

She said the percentage of the primary insurance amount received will depend on when the surviving spouse makes a claim.

“At the surviving spouse’s full retirement age, the benefit will be 100 percent of her husband’s primary insurance amount,” she said. “A widower claiming earlier than full retirement age may see the benefit be as low as 71 percent of her husband’s primary insurance amount.”

Social Security also pays out a one-time death benefit of $255, she said.

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This story was originally published on May 28, 2020.

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