Panel Paper: The Timing of the Primary Earner's Social Security Claiming Decision, the Survivor Benefit, and the Financial Well-Being of the Spouse in Widow(er)Hood

Saturday, November 8, 2014 : 2:05 PM
Santa Ana (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jeffrey Diebold1, John Scott2 and Jeremy Grant Moulton2, (1)North Carolina State University, (2)University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In this paper, we focus on the critical decision of when to begin receiving Social Security benefits, which can have a significant effect on the value of Social Security retirement benefits.  Anyone who is eligible for Social Security can begin to receive their retirement benefit between age 62 and age 70. However, those eligible for Social Security have a Full Retirement Age (FRA) which specifies the age at which the “full” retirement benefit, or Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), is paid. Workers claiming before their FRA will receive a permanent reduction in their retirement benefit while those who delay claiming after their FRA will receive a permanent increase; thus policy provides an incentive to delay receiving Social Security benefits.

For married workers, the timing of their claiming is especially important because it affects the benefits his or her widow(er) can receive. In the event of the worker’s death, the surviving spouse is entitled to some or all of their deceased spouse’s retirement benefit as a survivor benefit. The value of the survivor benefit is capped at the value of the deceased spouse’s retirement benefit, including any reductions (increases) for early (late) claiming.

We analyze the relationship between the timing of the primary earner’s claiming decision on the well-being of the surviving spouse following the primary earner’s death. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, we find that the earlier a primary earner claims their retirement benefit, the higher the likelihood their surviving spouse enters poverty following their death. We distinguish the primary from the secondary earners in a married household using the work and income history of the respondents. The results suggest that the timing of the primary earner’s claiming decision can have important consequences for the financial security of their widow(er).

The practical implications of the findings from this study are significant with respect to information the Social Security Administration (SSA) provides to workers approaching retirement age. Currently, the SSA provides workers with a statement that emphasizes how the worker’s retirement benefit changes with respect to their FRA and their intended claiming age. This statement also provides the worker with information on the amount their widow(er) is eligible to receive in survivor benefits, but it does not explain how this benefit changes with respect to their intended claiming age. It may be possible to influence timing of the worker’s claiming decision if, in addition to the retirement benefit, the statement demonstrates how their claiming age affects the amount of the survivor benefit their spouse is eligible to receive. At the very least, married primary earners could be made aware of the financial implications of their decision for spouse as well as themselves. To the extent that such information can influence claiming behavior, this small adjustment to the SSA statement may help improve the financial security of the widow(er)s in the United States.

Full Paper: