People may be living longer than ever before, and the average retirement has increased from years to decades since the mid-twentieth century, but plenty of retirees and pre-retirees still become widowed each year. In fact, according to the US Census Bureau, 14 percent of unmarried American citizens are widows or widowers.
For seniors whose spouses die in their pre-retirement years, income planning can become far more complex and risky, especially for those who depend on two full-time incomes throughout their working years. And, even when a spouse dies after both parties have quit working, the sudden decreases in Social Security and pension benefits can leave the survivor struggling to cover his or her expenses.
To help these clients stay afloat and retain as many of their assets as possible, advisors need to be able to recommend quick, well-planned changes to their retirement strategies. They should also understand the risks of widowhood ahead of time, so they can help couples properly plan for an untimely death.
Social Security, Pensions and Life Insurance
“The first thing to focus on after a spouse’s death is Social Security,” said Pat Simasko, attorney at Simasko Law. “If the wife has been married for nine months or more, she can actually start collecting off her deceased husband’s benefits at age 60, but she’ll only get 71 percent of the benefit.” If she can afford to live on her own benefits—beginning collection at age 62—she can also defer her husband’s until 65 to avoid the penalty.”
For younger widows who need to keep working, however, collecting so early may be a poor choice. “If you have a client under 62 earning a moderate income, and they have the ability to take their spouse’s benefit, they’re not going to get the full benefit because of Social Security’s limitations on how much you can earn,” said Paul Murray, President of PTM Wealth Management. For those earning greater than $15,720 per year, the Social Security Administration withholds one dollar in benefits for every two dollars in excess of that threshold. If a deceased spouse made considerably more money, and if the survivor can afford to live on job earnings and other assets, the best long-term option may be to delay collection of the spousal benefits until at least 65.
For clients with corporate pensions, planning ahead of time is even more important. “If a husband dies prior to collecting a pension, the wife usually just gets spousal benefits at around 50 percent, but they’re stuck with the election they’ve taken once they retire” said Simasko. “If a husband decides to collect 100 percent of his pension, he could die after collecting the first check, and his wife would get nothing.” Whether the pension earner dies before or after retirement, the survivor can rarely change the benefits distribution chosen at the outset.