Social Security Survivor Benefits

podcast episode on social security survivor benefits

Don’t miss the Big Picture Retirement Resources page at, including the organizer, the blueprint version of Devin’s book Social Security Basics, and John’s guide on what to do after you’ve had a death.

This week, Devin and John are talking about Social Security survivor benefits, including some of the special situations that can occur.

On the surface, it seems pretty simple: at the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse is eligible to receive his or her own benefit, or the benefit of the deceased, whichever is greatest.

Who Is Eligible for Survivor’s Benefits?

There are three categories of people who can receive survivors benefits: spouses, former spouses, and children.

Children must be unmarried, and under 18, or under 19 if still in high school, or if they are disabled before the age of 22.

Spouses must be married to the deceased at the time of death, and must have been married for at least nine months. There are multiple exceptions to the nine month rule. If you have a situation where someone passed away before being married nine months, then you need to look into these exceptions.

In some situations, surviving spousal benefits can begin at age 60, or age 50 if disabled, or if you are caring for the deceased’s child who is under the age of 16.

Former spouses must have been married to the deceased for at least 10 years. Again, you may be able to collect survivor benefits from a former spouse as early as age 60. There’s a tricky rule that says that you must be unmarried in order to collect survivor benefits from a former spouse, unless the subsequent marriage occurred after the age of 60.

How Much Is The Spousal Survivor Benefit?

There are four categories of how the spousal survivor benefit is calculated, based upon their age at death and whether or not they had filed for benefits. Then, the benefit is adjusted for the age that the survivor files for benefits.

Here’s a chart showing how the survivor’s benefits are adjusted based upon the age at which they file for benefits (note: this chart is based on a full retirement age of 67):

If the deceased spouse died before filing for benefits and was younger than full retirement age, then the survivor benefit is the deceased’s full retirement age benefit, adjusted for the age that the survivor files for benefits.

If the deceased spouse died before filing for benefits and was older than full retirement age, then your spouse would get the same benefit as if you had filed on the day of your death, adjusted for the age that the survivor files for benefits.

If the deceased did file for benefits, and they filed on or after their full retirement age, the benefit will be the amount the deceased was receiving, adjusted for the age at which the survivor files for benefits.

Here is the one tricky part: If the deceased did file for benefits, and they filed before their full retirement age, then there is a special rule about how much the survivor can receive. This rule is called the Retirement Income Benefit Limitation, or RIB LIM, but many people call it the “widow’s limit.”

The RIB LIM, or “Widow’s Limit”

The RIB LIM rule states that the survivor can not receive more than the greater of:

  • the actual benefit of the deceased’s benefit or
  • 82.5% of the deceased’s full retirement age benefit, as that benefit is adjusted for the age at which the survivor begins receiving benefits.

In the case of a survivor of a person who has filed for benefits early, this effectively caps their total benefit, and eliminates the advantages of delaying benefits. There is no additional benefit to delaying beyond the age at which the survivor reaches that 82.5% cap. Based upon your year of birth, the spousal survivor benefit will max out with filing somewhere between age 62 and 4 months and 62 and 7 months IF you are subject to this RIB LIM.

In summary: If you’re a surviving spouse, and you’re going to receive a survivors benefits, and your deceased spouse filed for benefits earlier, understand that waiting may not increase your benefits.

Restricted Filing

In most cases, when you file for Social Security benefits, you can’t pick and choose which benefits to take. This is called “deemed filing,”  meaning that if you file for one benefit, they deem you to file for all the benefits for which you are eligible.

It’s very important to know that deemed filing does not apply to survivor benefits. You can make a claim just for your survivor benefits or you can claim just your own benefit. When you file for just your survivor benefits or just your benefits, this is called a “restricted application.” Based upon your individual situation, it may help you to take just one benefit and to let the other benefit grow and take that benefit later.


  • Thinking about the impact of early filing not only on the individual filing, but also on his or her survivors
  • People who wait beyond age 70 to file for benefits
  • What happens when someone has disappeared

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