Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits can be confusing. Here’s how they work

Dear Liz: My husband passed away, and I am 59 years old and no longer working. Social Security’s site says that once I turn 60, I can get 71.5% to 99% of what he would have received at his full retirement age. What determines whether I get 71.5% or 99% or something in between?

Answer: The range you mention applies when you start survivor benefits before your own full retirement age for such benefits. For people born in 1962 and later, the full retirement age for survivor benefits is 67.

(This is different from the full retirement age for retirement benefits, which is 67 for people born in 1960 and later. Just in case you thought Social Security benefits weren’t quite complicated enough.)

It also matters if your husband was receiving Social Security benefits when he died. If so, the survivor benefit would be based on that check. If not, the survivor benefit would be based on the amount he would have gotten at his full retirement age (if he died at or before that age) or the benefit he earned (if he died after full retirement age).

In general, though, the earlier you start Social Security benefits, the less you get. If you start survivor benefits at 60, then you’d get 71.5% of your husband’s benefit. If you wait until right before you turn 67, you could get 99%. If you wait until you turn 67, you get 100%.

Your check also could be reduced if you start survivor benefits early and then go back to work. The earnings test would reduce your check by $1 for every $2 you earned over a certain limit, which in 2023 is $21,240. The earnings test would apply until you turned 67.

Something else you should consider is the Social Security benefit you’ve earned based on your own work record. This benefit can continue to grow if you put off claiming it until the amount maxes out at age 70.

You’re also allowed to switch between survivor benefits and your own, or vice versa. (Switching is something that’s not typically allowed with other benefits, such as spousal benefits.)

You could start receiving reduced survivor benefits at 60 and switch to your own maxed-out benefit at 70 — or start your own reduced benefit at 62 and switch to the unreduced survivor benefit at 67, for example. The right course will depend on the amounts involved and the math can be complicated, so consider consulting a financial planner or Social Security claiming strategy sites such as Social Security Solutions or Maximize My Social Security.


  1. My Mom passed away and had a pension as well as Social Security benefits. Am I eligible to receive part of her Social Security benefits? If so, what steps must I take? To find out if I am eligible to receive some of her pension from Los Angeles Unified School District, what steps do you suggest I take?

    • Liz Weston says

      Sorry, but Social Security and pension benefits only continue if you’re a spouse.