How Do Social Security Survivors Benefits Add Up?

By Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

July 26, 2017 6 min read

Dear Carrie, My husband and I are each getting Social Security based on our own work records. When one of us dies, will the survivor collect both benefits, or do we need to plan for substantially reduced income? —A Reader

Dear Reader, There's a misconception about survivor benefits that when both spouses are collecting Social Security and one dies, the surviving spouse gets both benefits. Unfortunately, that's just not so. While on the surface that might make sense, Uncle Sam isn't that generous.

The rules can be somewhat complex depending on your age and marital status but in your case it's pretty straightforward. Since you and your husband are each currently collecting benefits, if one of you passes away, the survivor has two choices — either keep getting their own benefit or switch to a survivor benefit. It all depends on whose benefit is higher.

Let's say your Social Security benefit is higher than your husband's and he passes away before you do. As the surviving spouse, you may be eligible for a $255 lump sum death benefit for which you'd need to apply — but nothing more. Because your Social Security monthly payment was higher than your husband's, you would simply continue to receive your own benefit.

Now let's reverse that scenario and say that your husband's benefit is higher than your own. In this case, if he predeceased you, you'd be eligible to collect 100 percent of his higher benefit. A surviving spouse can collect survivors benefits as early as age 60, but the benefit would be incrementally reduced each year before the survivor's full retirement age.

Because you're already collecting Social Security on your own work record, you would need to apply for the survivors benefit. The Social Security Administration would then verify that you'd get a higher benefit as a widow and adjust your benefit accordingly.

I'm using you as an example, but needless to say, the rules are the same for widows and widowers.

As I said, for couples already getting benefits, the options are pretty limited. But for couples still trying to figure out how to maximize survivor benefits, there are still a few strategies to consider.

One possibility is for the lower earning spouse to apply for benefits early at FRA, while the higher earning spouse delays until age 70. That would potentially increase survivor's benefits as well as benefits during the couple's lifetime. Another option for people born before 1954 is to have one spouse file for benefits at FRA while the other spouse files for spousal benefits only, letting their own benefit accrue until age 70.

And for couples who anticipate a long life and can afford it, if each spouse can wait until age 70 to file for benefits, so much the better. Again, the goal is to maximize both lifetime and survivors benefits.

The information above is pertinent for couples who are looking to the future. Once one spouse dies, however, the survivor still has options.

For example, a widow or widower could claim a survivor benefit from age 60 to 70, and then switch over to the benefit based on their own work record. Alternatively, he or she could claim their lower benefit based on their own work record as early as age 62, and later switch to 100 percent of their deceased spouse's benefit at FRA.

The Social Security Administration should be notified as soon as possible after a person dies. You will need to call the SSA to report the death and apply for survivor's benefits. At the time of application, you may be asked to present certain documents such as a death certificate and marriage license, birth certificate, proof of citizenship, etc.

None of us likes to think about the loss of a loved one, but whatever your situation, it makes sense to plan ahead and carefully weigh your options. If you know in advance what you may have to deal with, it will make it that much easier to handle the details when the time comes.

Understanding Social Security survivor benefits should be just one part of your overall financial and estate planning. Consider talking about it with your financial advisor or attorney. And make sure your family also has access to any pertinent information. In the meantime, enjoy every moment.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm), is president of Charles Schwab Foundation and author of The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty, available in bookstores nationwide. Read more at You can e-mail Carrie at [email protected] Information on this website is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


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