Q&A: Why delaying Social Security might be the ultimate gift for your spouse

Dear Liz: My husband is 75 and started Social Security at 62. I am 68 and started Social Security at my full retirement age of 66. My Social Security benefit is the higher of the two. My financial planner says the rules on survivorship have changed. She believes that if I die first, while my husband can still claim my benefit, it will be reduced since he took benefits early. I have not heard of this before. Is this true?

Answer: No. His early start won’t affect his survivor benefit should you die first, because you were the higher earner. Had he been the higher earner, though, his early start could have penalized you.

It’s the higher earner’s benefit that determines what the survivor gets. When one of you dies, the smaller of your two benefits goes away. The survivor gets the larger of the two checks instead.

Obviously, losing a benefit can mean a significant drop in income. A larger survivor benefit can really help the remaining spouse make ends meet. That’s why it’s so important for the higher earner to delay filing if possible.

Your husband accepted a permanently reduced benefit when he applied for Social Security at 62. You got your full, unreduced benefit by waiting for your full retirement age. If you’d put off your application a bit longer, though, you could have received “delayed retirement credits” that would have boosted your check — and the eventual survivor benefit — by 8% each year until your benefit maxed out at age 70.

Abundant research has shown that most people are better off delaying Social Security if they can. In a November 2022 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, three economists found that virtually all American workers ages 45 to 62 should wait beyond age 65 to collect and more than 90% should wait till age 70.

One of the three economists, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, has also written a book for the general public about Social Security claiming strategies, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Make sure to get the updated version because Congress changed some claiming strategies in 2015 (but not the ones that affect survivor benefits).

You might consider getting a copy for your advisor, or at least sending her a link, because she definitely needs to strengthen her knowledge of this vital program for retirees.