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Ask Larry: What Survivor Benefits Could My Wife And Kids Get Based On My Social Security Record?

Today’s column addresses questions about potential survivor’s benefits available to spouses and children based on a worker’s record, how disability benefits are calculated and the availability of benefits based on an ex’s record. Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, which markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner.

See more Ask Larry answers here.

Have Social Security questions of your own you’d like answered? Ask Larry about Social Security here.


What Social Security Survivor Benefits Could My Wife And Kids Get Based On My Record?

Hi Larry, I am fortunately not in ill health but am just doing some contingency planning. My wife and I have two children, 8 and 10, and we both work though I am the higher earner by a fairly significant amount. I’ve earned at or near the maximum taxable by Social Security for the last decade and still relatively high before then. If I were to pass away, what types of survivor benefits could my wife and children receive? Thanks, Evan

Hi Evan, That depends on your wife and children’s ages at the time of your death. Children can potentially receive survivor benefits from a parent’s Social Security account if they’re either under 18, or 18 to 19 and attending high school, or at any age if they’re unmarried and they became disabled prior to 22.

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A surviving spouse can potentially receive widow’s benefits if they are a) at least 60, or b) at least 50 and disabled, or c) if they have an eligible child in their care who is either under 16 or is disabled.

Eligible surviving children can receive up to 75% of the deceased worker’s primary insurance amount (PIA), and widows can receive up to 100% of their husband’s PIA, including any delayed retirement credits (DRC) the husband earned by waiting past full retirement age (FRA) to draw their benefits.

A person’s PIA is equal to their Social Security retirement benefit rate if they start drawing their benefits at full retirement age (FRA). My company’s software — Maximize My Social Security or MaxiFi Planner — can help you explore all of your options so you can make an informed decision about what benefits to file for and when. Social Security calculators provided by other companies or non-profits may provide proper suggestions if they were built with extreme care. Best, Larry


Can I Do Anything To Receive A Larger Benefit?

Hi Larry, I started getting SSDI in 1996. My amount I get now is $658 a month is it because I didn’t work very long and when I did it was at $3.69 an hour working at big box stores in 1996. I got sick with MS and had to stop working early. It’s very hard to live on this amount. Can I do anything to receive a larger benefit? Thanks, Julie

Hi Julie, Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits benefits are based on an average of a variable number of a person’s highest years of wage-indexed earnings, so the only way that you could potentially increase your SSDI rate is by replacing one or more years of higher earnings. Assuming that’s not possible, then you’re probably stuck with your current rate for life since SSDI benefits convert to regular retirement benefits at your full retirement age (FRA).

Social Security does administer a needs based benefit called Supplemental Security Income (SSI), though. If you don’t have much if any income other than your SSDI benefits and if you have less than $2,000 in assets other than a car and a home, you might want to check with Social Security to see if you could qualify for SSI benefits.

You don’t mention your marital history, so I don’t know if it would be possible for you to qualify for benefits on a spouse or ex-spouse’s record. Best, Larry


When My Ex-Spouse Retires, Can I Get Benefits On His Record?

Hi Larry, I was married to my ex-husband for 32 years and I have not remarried but he has. I’m five years older than him and I retired at my full retirement age of 66. So when he retires, can I go back to Social Security and try to get a spousal benefit? Thanks, Jamie

Hi Jamie, I assume you mean that you’re already drawing your own Social Security retirement benefits and that you started drawing your benefits at your full retirement age (FRA). In that case, you could only qualify for divorced spousal benefits if 50% of your ex’s primary insurance amount (PIA) is more than your own PIA. A person’s PIA is equal to the amount of their Social Security retirement benefit if they start drawing at full retirement age (FRA).

The fact that your ex is remarried wouldn’t adversely affect your ability to qualify for benefits on his account, but he would have to either be at least 62 or drawing Social Security retirement or disability (SSDI) benefits in order for you to potentially be eligible for divorced spousal benefits. If you think you might already qualify, you should probably contact Social Security ASAP to see if you’re eligible.

When and if you do qualify for divorced spousal benefits, your unreduced divorced spousal rate would be calculated by subtracting your PIA from 50% of your ex’s PIA. That amount would then be paid in addition to your own benefit rate, provided that you don’t start collecting the divorced spousal benefits prior to your FRA.

So if 50% of your ex’s PIA is more than your PIA and assuming that you didn’t start drawing your benefits prior to FRA, your combined benefit rate could add up to a full 50% of your ex’s PIA. You may also at some point qualify for divorced widow’s benefits too. Best, Larry


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