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Ask Rusty: What’s the Best Way to Start Receiving My Survivor Benefit?

By Russell Gloor


Dear Rusty: When one becomes a widow/widower, what is the most efficient way to start receiving the deceased’s monthly Social Security. 

Signed: Still Grieving

Dear Still Grieving: There is really only one way to start receiving surviving spouse benefits — you must contact Social Security (SS) directly to apply. You can call (800) 772-1213 or call your local SS field office (find the number at to make an appointment to apply for your survivor benefits. These appointments are normally conducted over the phone, so a personal visit to the Social Security office isn’t usually necessary. 

 The larger question to consider is when you should claim the survivor benefit. Like most other Social Security benefits, your age when you claim determines how much your survivor benefit will be. And a survivor benefit isn’t payable in all cases. Consider these points: 

• If the surviving spouse is already receiving her own SS retirement benefit and that is more than the deceased spouse was receiving, the surviving spouse continues to receive only her own higher benefit but will get a one-time lump sum death benefit of $255.

• If the surviving spouse’s own benefit is less than the deceased was receiving, the surviving spouse’s benefit will be based on the higher amount.

• If the surviving spouse has reached her full retirement age (FRA), the survivor’s benefit will be 100 percent of the amount the deceased was receiving. If the widow has not yet reached her FRA when she claims her survivor benefit, the amount will be reduced (by 4.75 percent for each full year earlier than FRA). 

•  A survivor benefit reaches maximum at the survivor’s FRA. If the surviving spouse hasn’t yet reached FRA, she has the option to delay claiming her survivor benefit until it reaches maximum at her FRA. There is one exception to this: if the surviving spouse was already receiving only a spousal benefit from the deceased (and not her own SS retirement benefit), the survivor benefit will be automatically awarded regardless of the survivor’s age. 

• If the surviving spouse hasn’t yet claimed her own SS retirement benefit, she has the option to claim only her survivor benefit first and permit her personal SS retirement benefit to grow (up to age 70). That would be prudent if the survivor’s own SS retirement benefit at age 70 will be higher than her maximum survivor benefit at her full retirement age.

• If you haven’t yet reached your full retirement age and are still working, the Social Security Administration has an earnings test that limits how much you can earn before some benefits are taken away. The limit for 2023 is $21,240 and if that is exceeded, the SSA will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 you are over the limit. The earnings test goes away when you reach your FRA.

As you can see, there are several things to consider as you decide when to claim your Social Security benefits as a widow or widower. I hope this information helps you make an informed choice.      

Russell Gloor is a national Social Security advisor at the AMAC Foundation,  the nonprofit arm of the Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC). The 2.4-million-member AMAC says it is a senior advocacy organization. Send your questions to:

Author’s note: 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). The NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity.