Q & A

Ask Rusty – How Do Survivor Benefits Work for a Married Couple?

Dear Rusty:  How does Social Security handle the death of one spouse? Say, for example, the husband receives $2,000 per month in Social Security and his wife receives $1,000 per month. How is the death of either spouse handled? Signed: Concerned spouse 

Dear Concerned:  Benefits to a deceased beneficiary stop as soon as Social Security (SS) is notified of the death (notification usually done by the funeral director who handles arrangements). Benefits are not paid for the month of death, only for the preceding month when the beneficiary was alive for the entire month. 

A surviving spouse is entitled to the higher of two benefits – their own personally earned SS retirement benefit, or an amount based on the deceased spouse’s benefit at death. In the example you cite, and assuming the surviving spouse has reached full retirement age (FRA): if the husband dies first the wife will receive the husband’s $2,000 monthly benefit instead of her previous $1,000 amount. But if the wife died first, the husband would continue receiving only his $2,000 monthly amount because that is more than his deceased wife was receiving. Note in either case, the surviving spouse would be entitled to a one-time lump sum “death benefit” of $255.

The surviving spouse would need to contact Social Security to claim the “death benefit” and – unless the surviving spouse was previously receiving only a spousal benefit – also to claim the higher monthly amount, if eligible. If the surviving spouse was previously receiving only a spousal benefit from the deceased (and not entitled to SS retirement benefits on their own), then Social Security would automatically award their higher survivor amount when notified of the death.

If a surviving spouse has reached full retirement age (somewhere between 66 and 67 depending on year of birth) and is eligible for a survivor benefit, the amount of the survivor benefit will be 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit. But if the survivor claims the benefit before reaching FRA, the amount of the survivor benefit will be reduced (by 4.75% for each full year earlier). The survivor’s benefit reaches maximum at the survivor’s full retirement age.

If a surviving spouse has not yet reached their FRA, and if they are entitled to (not necessarily collecting) their own Social Security retirement benefit, the surviving spouse has the option to delay claiming the survivor benefit until it reaches maximum at their full retirement age. And if the survivor’s personal SS retirement benefit will ever be more than their maximum survivor benefit, the surviving spouse also has the option to claim only the smaller survivor benefit first and allow their personal SS retirement benefit to grow (to maximum at age 70 if desired).

With Social Security there is hardly ever a simple answer to a question but, in the example you use, if both are over their SS full retirement age:

• If the husband dies first, the wife will get 100% of the amount ($2000) the husband was receiving, instead of the small amount ($1000) she was previously receiving. 

• If the wife dies first, the husband’s monthly benefit will remain at $2000, and he will get no increase in his monthly amount.

• In either case, the surviving spouse will be entitled to a one-time lump sum death benefit of $255.

This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at [email protected].

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