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How Does Social Security Work When a Spouse Dies?

How Does Social Security Work When a Spouse Dies?

March 23, 2022

It’s not something we like to think about, but it is inevitable. When planning for your future retirement income and Social Security benefits, it is important to consider what happens to each of you if the other spouse passes away first. In most cases this is an unpredictable part of life, so we must discuss both possibilities and plan appropriately for each of them.

When one spouse dies, the other is eligible for survivors benefits, meaning you can collect their check instead of your own. Obviously, you would only want to do this if their check was the larger of the two. If you are the spouse with the smaller benefits check, your old benefit amount will stop and you will switch to the survivor benefit.

You are eligible for survivors benefits as long as you have reached age 60 and you have been married for at least 9 months at the time of death. However, certain exceptions to this rule do apply:

  • If your late spouse’s cause of death was accidental or due to military duties, the length of your marriage does not matter
  • If you are at least age 50 and disabled, and the disability occurred within seven years of your spouse’s death, you can receive survivors benefits
  • If the marriage produced children who are under age 16 or disabled, you can receive survivors benefits at any age

If you remarried before reaching age 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled) you cannot draw survivors benefits. But if that marriage ends, you will once again be eligible.

If you were already receiving spousal benefits, Social Security will usually process this change for you after your spouse’s death is reported. But if you were receiving your own benefit amount, you need to call Social Security and specifically request the survivor benefit.

If you were the higher-earning spouse and therefore you are drawing the larger Social Security check, you will stick with your own benefit. However, you should still plan for the loss of household income as your spouse’s check will stop when they pass away.

Since Social Security is an important part of your overall retirement plan, let’s discuss this issue at your next appointment. We should ensure that you are familiar with Social Security rules so that you can plan appropriately for potential changes in your benefits.