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When Husbands Shrink Their Wives’ Social Security Benefits

When Husbands Shrink Their Wives’ Social Security Benefits
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The earlier you start claiming Social Security retirement benefits, the smaller your monthly payments will be. But you might not be the only person negatively affected by your decision to claim early.

If your spouse outlives you, the age at which you started claiming your own benefits also determines the size of your widow’s or widower’s Social Security survivors benefit.

In fact, each year that a husband postpones claiming his Social Security retirement benefit could increase his future widow’s survivors benefit by about 7.3%, according to a study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

This stems from husbands generally having larger monthly retirement benefits than their wives, as men generally earn more during their working lives than women.

Yet the same study also found that a “large minority” of husbands tend not to consider the impact that their own claiming age has on their wives’ future survivors benefit. This finding is consistent with past research, the study authors note.

Why husbands tend not to consider their future widows

For a husband to consider how his Social Security claiming age impacts his future widow’s survivors benefit, he must effectively ponder his own death as well as what his wife’s financial situation will look like after his death.

These are significant obstacles — and ones that are unlikely to change — according to the authors of the Center for Retirement Research study. They write:

“To pick a claiming age based on survivor benefits, the husband first has to think about an uncertain event that he would rather avoid and that will occur in the distant future. Then he must make complicated financial projections about the amount of additional resources that his surviving spouse will need in the undesired situation. These are significant behavioral barriers, many of which impede seemingly rational behavior in many other aspects of retirement planning and insurance …”

In fact, the researchers performed an experiment that revealed that husbands did not change their choice of claiming age even after they were educated about the basics of how their claiming age could impact their spouse’s survivors benefits.

Instead, husbands tend to decide when to claim their Social Security retirement benefits based on more immediate considerations than death.

For example, the study found husbands tend to claim benefits earlier when they have one of the following:

  • A defined-benefit pension
  • Retiree health insurance
  • A health condition that limits their ability to work

How Social Security survivors benefits work

Social Security survivors benefits are not to be confused with spousal benefits.

If you’re eligible for spousal benefits, you can receive them while your spouse or possibly your ex-spouse is alive, depending on your circumstances. To be eligible for survivors benefits, on the other hand, you must be a survivor, such as a widow or widower.

Another difference is that survivors benefits are larger. As we detail in “7 Social Security Terms You Should Know to Boost Benefits“:

“While spousal benefits are limited to half a spouse’s benefit, survivors benefits can be up to 100 percent of the deceased’s benefit amount.”

Thus, the longer a husband delays claiming his own benefits, at least up until age 70, the larger his future widow’s monthly survivors benefit would be.

Note that that holds true for anyone who dies before their spouse, regardless of sex. The Center for Retirement Research study speaks specifically of husbands because the study was based largely on data on married men.

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