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Social Security spousal and survivor benefits: Different and not equal

David Freitag

Posted on January 19, 2023

David Freitag is a financial planning consultant and Social Security expert for MassMutual.
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Define how Social Security survivor benefits differ from Social Security spousal benefits.

Show how survivors can take advantage of a restricted filing strategy to enhance their Social Security benefits.

Provide an example where such a restricted filing strategy wouldn’t benefit a surviving spouse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 81 percent of the people who of people we have lost due to COVID-19 are age 65 and older. This means that tens of thousands of eligible surviving single spouses are now faced with an important and very strategic decision about how to handle Social Security survivor benefits.

Given the size of these numbers, it is very important to understand that Social Security survivor benefits are quite different from Social Security spousal benefits. Survivors have several different choices that are not available to spouses while both are alive. For example:

  • Spousal benefits can only begin at age 62.
  • Survivor benefits can start as early as age 60.
  • Survivor benefits are also available to spouses who are taking care of the worker’s dependent minor children under the age of 16.
  • Spousal benefits are capped at 50 percent of the worker’s benefit.
  • Survivor benefits are set at 100 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit.

In addition to these major differences, survivors have the ability to exercise something called the “restricted filing strategy.”

Spouses, born after January 1, 1954, do not have access to this strategy, but survivors do.

What is restricted filing? How does it work?

Restricted filing allows a widow or widower to collect Social Security benefits from the spouse who died and, at the same time, earn delayed retirement credits on their own record. Delayed retirement credits increase the survivor’s benefit by up to 8 percent simple interest per year between their current age and age 70. (Related: Social Security filing tactics)

Here is a hypothetical example of how restricted filing would work for Mary who lost her husband Bob. Mary is 67 years old when Bob died.

In this example let’s assume that:

  • Bob was collecting $3,000 a month in Social Security benefits based on his work record.
  • Mary has a benefit based on her own work record of $2,900 a month starting at her full retirement age of 67.
  • Using the restricted filing strategy, Mary can collect $3,000 a month from Bob’s record until she is age 70.
  • At that time, Mary will switch from Bob’s record to her own work record. The delayed retirement credits will increase her own monthly benefit to $4,039 a month for the rest of her life.

If Mary did not know about the restricted filing strategy and lived to age 90, the cumulative difference between filing on her own record at 67 versus following the restricted filing strategy would be over $171,531, if you factor in a 2.5 percent COLA adjustment each year.

In this situation, Bob’s Social Security benefit allows Mary to directly collect from his record for almost three years. Then at age 70, Mary can receive the maximum amount from her own record for a long as she lives. This is a powerful legacy from Bob and a gift to Mary.

When restricted filing doesn’t work

Sometimes the restricted filing strategy is not the right path to follow with Social Security benefits for a survivor. For a different example, let’s look at Nancy who is age 63 when her husband Allen died.

  • Nancy has a full retirement age benefit of $1,500 on her own record, while Allen was collecting $2,900 on his own record when he died.
  • It might be best for Nancy to start collecting $1,125 from her own record at age 63 until she reaches her full retirement age of 67. Because Nancy started taking benefits before her full retirement age, her benefit was reduced for early filing.
  • When Nancy reaches her full retirement age she would continue collecting from her own record and add the survivor benefit from Allen’s record.
  • This strategy would now pay Nancy $1,242 from her own record plus a survivor benefit from Allen’s record of $1,959 a month.
  • The combination of the two benefits is $3,201 a month.

Allen’s survivor benefit paid to Nancy acts like a shock absorber to guarantee that Nancy will receive the maximum benefit for the rest of her life. This strategy will cumulatively pay Nancy over $70,201 more than if she had just filed on her own record. These projections include a 2.5 percent COLA assumption over her lifetime. Higher cost of living increases amplifies these differences dramatically.

Social Security choices

When it comes to Social Security choices it is very important to be your own best advocate. The employees of the Social Security Administration want to be helpful. However, they are not planners and they certainly do not know all unique differences about each worker’s situation. Their important job is to respond to the wishes and requests of the workers who have paid into the system. Survivors must let the Social Security Administration know about which choices best work for their own set of life circumstances. A financial professional can help you assess your options. (Need a financial professional? Find one here)

The tragedy of COVID will be part of our lives for years and years to come. It is important to remember that, when it comes to Social Security, survivor benefits are not the same as spousal benefits. There are more choices available to survivors, and survivors must know which strategy will be best for them to follow in the future.

For more information or copies of publications, or to set up your Social Security myAccount, visit the Social Security Administration website at or call toll free at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

Discover more from MassMutual …

When should I file for Social Security retirement benefits?

Social Security strategies for the widowed

Setting financial goals: Retirement


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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its subsidiaries, employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.