It can be hard to plan for retirement when you don't know what you'll get from Social Security. I'm not talking about the program's solvency problems; I'm talking about trying to figure out how much you and your spouse will receive, depending on when you start drawing benefits.

As a member of the Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement team, I answer a lot of questions about Social Security. Recently, a man at the "full retirement age" of 66, at which he'd receive 100% of his Social Security benefits, wanted to know how much his wife, who didn't work long enough to earn benefits on her own, would receive. As you'll see, the answers to his questions depend heavily on several factors.

What is my wife entitled to if I die before age 62?
Your wife would be entitled to a widow's benefit based on your Social Security earnings at the time of death. The more you paid into Social Security, the higher the benefits would be. The amount your wife receives is a percentage of your basic Social Security benefit. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the following list covers the most typical situations:

  • Widow or widower at full retirement age or older: 100%
  • Widow or widower between ages 60 and 64: 71% to 94%
  • Widow or widower at any age with a child under age 16: 75%
  • Children: 75%

Your wife would be entitled to the survivor's benefit, but she may not draw that benefit until age 60, unless she is disabled, caring for a disabled child, or caring for a child younger than 16. The period between when the youngest child turns age 16 and her age 60 are called the "blackout years" -- the time when Social Security pays nothing.

What is my wife eligible for if I begin drawing at 62?
If she chooses to begin receiving retirement benefits before her full retirement age (FRA), her benefit amount will be permanently reduced. If she waits until she's at FRA, she'll get the full spousal benefit, which is 50% of the amount the working spouse is entitled to at FRA. For an idea of the reductions applied for drawing a benefit before a spouse reaches FRA, see the chart at the SSA website.

What if my wifestarts drawing at 62?Or at her FRA of 67?
If she begins receiving her benefits at age 62, she would receive 32.5% of your full retirement benefit. Note that if you were entitled to $1,000 per month at FRA, her spousal benefit would be $500 at her FRA. However, because she decided to take her spousal benefit at age 62, her $500 full spousal benefit is reduced by 35%, or $175, to $325.

What is my wife eligible for if I start drawing at 62 but die at 64, before she has started drawing?
How much she would receive in benefits depends on your average lifetime earnings. The higher your earnings were, the higher her benefits would be. The SSA calculates the basic amount as if you have reached FRA at the time you die. If you are already receiving benefits when you die, survivor benefits are based on that amount.

Suppose I draw at 62; then, seven years later, my wife starts drawing at 62, and I die shortly afterward at 69?
As noted above, her widow's benefit will be calculated on the amount you are receiving at the time of your death. The higher your benefit was at that time, the higher her survivor benefits would be. Because she would only be age 62 under your scenario, her survivor benefit would be somewhere around 80% of your benefit.

If I start drawing at 62, but she goes back to work (still in her 50s) does that income reduce my benefit?
No, her work will not affect your benefit in any way.

As you can see, these questions aren't clear-cut. But they're still important to understand, especially if you and your spouse want to gain as clear an image as possible of your retirement. The most reliable numbers will come straight from the SSA, so if you've got more questions about your specific situation, get in touch with them.

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