Social Security is based on your career earnings. But what happens if your spouse was the primary earner or the sole earner in your household and predeceases you? If that is income you were counting on in retirement, there may be options for you to keep that income going forward.

In this week’s column, Phil Moeller, the author of Get What’s Yours for Medicare: Maximize Your Coverage, Minimize Your Costs and co-author of the updated edition of How to Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security, offers advice on this topic.

Got a question of your own about Medicare or Social Security? Send it to askphil@considerable.com.

If I predecease my spouse, how can I help them financially?

John: I have read your Medicare and Social Security books. The first was of great help to me in making my way through the process of signing up for Medicare which, I must say, I have found to work quite well for me. I am now working my way through the second and have a question about Social Security. 

I am 71 years old (DOB – 9/30/47). I waited until age 70 to begin taking my Social Security retirement benefits.

My wife turned 61 last February. She is still working but is thinking about retiring so we can travel and enjoy our free time while I am still young enough and healthy to do so.

I earned much more during my career than she has, and my current benefit is greater than my wife’s retirement benefit will be regardless of at what age she stops working.

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Here is my question: Assuming my wife takes her retirement benefits at age 62 or at any point before she reaches either her full retirement age (66, 8 months) or age 70, and assuming I predecease her, what benefits is she entitled to upon my death?

I am under the impression from your book that my wife could collect her own retirement benefits while we are both alive and then, in effect, “step into my shoes” and receive my benefits when I die. Is this correct?

Phil Moeller: You’re generally correct, but there are some time elements to your wife’s best strategy here.

Spousal benefits and survivor benefits do not reach their maximum amounts until the claimant (your wife) has reached her full retirement age (FRA).

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At that time, her maximum spousal benefit would be half of your FRA benefit entitlement (even though you had not filed at that age). It’s thus possible that her own retirement benefit would be more than her spousal benefit. 

However, if she filed for her retirement benefit prior to reaching her FRA, she also would trigger the filing for her spousal benefit.

She would only receive an amount that equaled the greater of the two benefits, and both of them would be reduced because she filed before her FRA.

She thus should give some thought to exactly when she would file for her benefit. 

Spousal benefits and survivor benefits do not reach their maximum amounts until the claimant has reached his/her full retirement age (FRA).

If you died before your wife reached her FRA, she would have to wait until her FRA to file for a survivor benefit in order to receive the full amount of your retirement benefit.

She can claim her own retirement benefit before her FRA without worrying whether it would affect her later filing for a survivor benefit. The two decisions are not linked.

If she hasn’t already done so, I suggest that your wife open a My Social Security online account to compare her retirement and spousal benefits at different claiming ages, and decide whether she should file now or wait until her FRA.

If your health is good, I’d suggest you consider her deferring her filing until her FRA. Doing so, however, might reduce your household income in the short run and put a crimp in your retirement travel plans.

Good luck and many bon voyages!

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