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Ask Rusty: Do you want to claim just your father’s benefit (which was larger) or claim my mother’s benefit and the difference between the two?

Ask Rusty
Social Security Matters
by National Social Security Advisor at the AMAC Foundation,
the non-profit arm of the Association of Mature American Citizens

Dear Rusty: When my father passed away and we went to update my mother’s Social Security benefits, a question arose that I was confused by. We were asked “Do you want to claim just your father’s benefit (which was larger) or claim my mother’s benefit and the difference between the two?” Either way it would come to the same amount. Is there a reason to claim one way over the other? Perhaps a caveat that we are unaware of? Is there a loophole that we are missing that may potentially benefit the survivor? We are soon to face this question again as my father-in-law is very ill. Signed: Curious

Dear Curious: Well, they are basically the same amount but there is a nuance in the rules that many survivors aren’t aware of. Here’s why Social Security asked that question: It is possible for a surviving spouse to claim only the survivor benefit and defer claiming their own SS benefit until a later age if their personal benefit would be more than the survivor benefit would be. A survivor benefit reaches maximum at the survivor’s full retirement age, but their personal SS benefit can grow until they are 70 years old. Thus, claiming the survivor benefit (only) first, and allowing their personal benefit to grow up to age 70 is often a wise move. Doing so allows someone to collect survivor benefits upon becoming a widow(er), while still maximizing their personal benefit. When later claimed, the higher personal benefit will replace the smaller survivor benefit. Of course, this option only makes sense if one’s personal benefit would later be more than their survivor benefit.
Social Security is required to ask this question because the person may be eligible for a higher benefit on their own if they wait until a later age to claim it, but the “survivor benefit only” option is useful only if the survivor has not yet reached 70 years of age. After age 70 they would always take whichever benefit is higher. In most cases SS pays the person’s own benefit first and then a “boost” to bring the payment up to the higher amount due as a survivor. But the choice to claim the survivor benefit only is an option if the survivor has not yet reached 70 and if their own benefit could later be more than their survivor benefit.
So, the question is – which option did your mother choose? And is your mother-in-law under age 70? If your mother’s own benefit at age 70 would not have been higher than her survivor benefit from your father, then it doesn’t matter which way it was recorded. And if your mother-in-law is over age 70, it doesn’t matter either. But if not and either personal benefit at age 70 would be more than their earlier survivor benefit, then opting for the survivor benefit only and waiting to claim their own later would be (or have been) a better choice.
This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at ssadvisor@amacfoundation.org.