I’m always surprised to see how even the most conscientious savers and planners — those with estate plans and buttoned-up beneficiary designations — fail to see how Social Security survivor benefits can influence their financial legacy. In other words, they make decisions about their own Social Security benefits without understanding the long-term effect it may have on their family members.

The fact is, survivor benefits are a powerful component of the Social Security program. I say powerful because they represent the opportunity for your benefits to continue paying even after your death.

Indeed, your surviving family members can collect Social Security benefits based on your earnings history. And unlike spousal benefits, which I talked about in my previous post, the size of the survivor benefits you leave behind changes depending on when you opt to collect your individual benefits.

So, if you decide you want to take your individual benefits at the earliest possibility (currently age 62), know that you are locking in lower lifetime income not only for yourself, but for your spouse should you predecease him/her. At the opposite extreme, should you choose to delay receiving benefits, thereby earning a higher monthly check from the government, that higher amount is eligible to pass on to your surviving spouse.

Let’s look at a hypothetical couple, John (the higher earner) and Jane. If John made the decision to collect reduced Social Security benefits at age 62 vs. his highest possible benefit at age 70, he would be leaving Jane with $1,100 less per month for the duration of her life, as shown here:

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