Delaying Social Security can protect a surviving spouse

Savvy husbands and wives spend a lot of time coordinating when to start taking Social Security to maximize their total benefits.

But it’s just as crucial to plan for when that income is slashed after the first spouse dies.

One silver lining in Social Security is that no matter which spouse dies first, the survivor keeps the higher of the two benefits.

Boosting the survivor benefit is a key reason that experts recommend delaying claiming benefits until age 70, particularly for the higher-earning spouse.

Racking up four years of delayed credits not only boosts, say, the husband’s benefit by 32 percent, but it also hikes the survivor benefit for his widow if she outlives him.

When considering when to claim benefits, “really look at what’s optimal for the survivor benefit,” said Michael Weber, a partner at financial-services firm WeberMessick. “You could be giving away six figures if you don’t.”

The narrower the gap between a couple’s benefit amounts, the harder that financial punch will be when one benefit drops off.

And the pain is most acute when both spouses bring in hefty benefits.

Say both spouses qualified for a benefit at full retirement age of $2,000 a month and both waited until age 70 to claim to boost their individual monthly benefit by $640 each.

That puts their combined benefit at $5,280 a month. When the first spouse dies, that Social Security income will be cut in half, with no higher benefit the survivor can switch to.

While such a sharp drop in benefits is a scary thought, a couple can plan before the surviving spouse faces that cliff.

Couples should consider a few scenarios, assuming the lower benefit will disappear sooner and later. How would you buttress the financial loss in each circumstance?

Start looking for income spigots that could be turned on to fill it. If you have to turn to bigger retirement account distributions for the survivor, how will that affect the nest egg’s longevity?

Perhaps you could purchase an annuity for cash flow.

You could set aside a stash of cash that the surviving spouse could use to buy an immediate annuity that pays the same amount as the lost benefit after the first spouse dies.

Or you could consider buying a longevity annuity that will start paying years into the future, such as at age 85.

Life insurance might be another route to fill the gap. Proceeds will go to the beneficiary tax-free when the insured dies, creating a pot of income to draw upon monthly.

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