How Do Social Security Survivors Benefits Add Up?

Key Points

  • When a husband and wife each collect Social Security, survivor benefits are the higher of the two—not both.

  • If each spouse gets benefits based on their own work record, the surviving spouse has to apply for survivor benefits. It doesn't happen automatically.

  • Couples still deciding when to collect Social Security should think about how to maximize survivor as well as lifetime benefits.

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. Here's how it works.

If the surviving spouse's 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.

If the deceased spouse's benefit is higher

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 (earlier if caring for dependent children), but the benefit would be incrementally reduced each year before the survivor’s full retirement age (FRA).

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 (SSA) 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.

For couples not yet getting benefits

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.

After one spouse is deceased

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% of their deceased spouse’s benefit at FRA.

How to apply for survivors benefits

The Social Security Administration (SSA) should be notified as soon as possible after a person dies. A funeral home will report the death to the SSA if you provide the deceased's Social Security number. Otherwise, you will need to call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 or contact your local Social Security office to report the death and apply for survivors benefits. You can't do this online.

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. You'll also need to answer certain questions. You can find greater details on the process, including a list of documents and questions at ssa.gov.

Whatever your situation, think ahead

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.

Have a personal finance question? Email us ataskcarrie@schwab.com. Carrie cannot respond to questions directly, but your topic may be considered for a future article. For Schwab account questions and general inquiries,contact Schwab.

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