Defer Survivors Benefits Until 70?

Dear Dr. Don,

My husband died in 2004. He never took his Social Security benefits until he was 70. As a widow, taking his benefits at 50% is more beneficial to me than taking my own.

My question is this: Is there a benefit for me to defer taking his Social Security benefits until I am 70? Will they be more then, or are they set at the time of his death in 2004?

-- Elizabeth Earnings

Dear Elizabeth, There's no increase in Social Security survivors benefits based on the survivor's elective deferral of earnings. However, survivor benefits will increase over time as the Social Security Administration makes cost-of-living adjustments.

There's a difference between the spousal benefit you can receive based on your husband's work record and the survivor's benefit you receive as his widow. The following is from the Social Security electronic pamphlet, "Survivors Benefits":

If you are getting benefits as a wife or husband based on your spouse's work, when you report the death to us, we will change your payments to survivors benefits. If we need more information, we will contact you.

If you are getting benefits based on your own work, call or visit us, and we will check to see if you can get more money as a widow or widower. If so, you will receive a combination of benefits that equals the higher amount. You will need to complete an application to switch to survivors benefits, and we will need to see your spouse's death certificate.

You didn't state your age, but if you're at full retirement age you may be able to receive full benefits based on his work record. Reduced widow or widower benefits can be received as early as age 60. The Social Security Web page, "Widows, Widowers & Other Survivors," has more details.

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