How Are Social Security Survivor Benefits Calculated?

To understand Social Security benefit calculations, you first need to understand one piece of jargon: “primary insurance amount” (PIA). A person’s primary insurance amount is the amount of their monthly retirement benefit, if they file for that benefit exactly at their full retirement age.

If your spouse has died and you file for a benefit as their survivor, your benefit will depend on:

  • Your deceased spouse’s PIA,
  • Whether your deceased spouse had already filed for his/her retirement benefit (and at what age they did so, if applicable),
  • The age at which your spouse died, and
  • The age at which you file for your benefit as a surviving spouse.

Let’s first assume that you have reached your survivor full retirement age by the time you file for your survivor benefit.

If your spouse had not filed yet for his/her own retirement benefit by the time he/she died, then:

  • If your spouse died prior to his/her full retirement age, your benefit as a surviving spouse will be your deceased spouse’s PIA.
  • If your spouse died after reaching his/her full retirement age, your benefit as a surviving spouse will be whatever he/she would have received as a retirement benefit, if he/she had filed on his/her date of death.

If your spouse had filed for his/her own retirement benefit by the time he/she died, then your benefit as a surviving spouse will be the greater of:

  • The amount your deceased spouse was receiving at the time of his/her death, or
  • 82.5% of your deceased spouse’s PIA.  (In other words, if your spouse filed so early that they were receiving less than 82.5% of their PIA, you would get 82.5% of their PIA.)

Reduction for Early Filing

If you file for a survivor benefit prior to your survivor full retirement age, your benefit as a survivor will be reduced.

Specifically, if you file as early as possible (age 60), then your benefit as a survivor will be 71.5% of what it would have been if you waited until your survivor FRA.

From there, your survivor benefit increases proportionately until you reach your survivor FRA. For example, if you file for your survivor benefit halfway between age 60 and full retirement age, the amount you receive will be 85.75% (i.e., halfway between 71.5% and 100%) of the amount that would have received if you waited until FRA.

Special Situation: Both People File Early

If your deceased spouse had filed for his/her own retirement benefit prior to his/her FRA and you file for your benefit as a survivor prior to your survivor FRA, then the math is a bit more complicated. (The short answer is that you get slightly more than what was indicated above.)

Specifically, your benefit as a survivor would be your deceased spouse’s PIA, but you must reduce that benefit as described above due to the fact that you filed early (e.g., 28.5% reduction if you file ASAP at age 60). Then, the resulting benefit is limited to the greater of:

  • 82.5% of your deceased spouse’s PIA, or
  • The amount your deceased spouse was receiving on the date of his/her death.

Survivor Benefit Together with Your Own Retirement Benefit

If you are “entitled” to your own retirement benefit as well as a benefit as a surviving spouse (i.e., you are eligible for each benefit and have filed for each benefit), then your benefit as a surviving spouse will be reduced by the amount of your own retirement benefit. (In most cases, this simply means that you get the greater of the two benefit amounts.)

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