Social Security and Retirement: What a Surviving Spouse Needs to Know

The Basics of Spousal Benefits


As the surviving widow or widower of someone who had participated in Social Security, you are likely to be entitled to benefits on your spouse’s account. This would be true whether or not you’ve earned any benefits based on your own work history.


Here are some common scenarios:


  • You and your spouse were already collecting benefits. If you were each collecting benefits on your own accounts, you can continue to collect your individual benefit or you can collect a survivor’s benefit equal to your spouse’s previous benefit, whichever is greater. If you were collecting as a spouse under your partner’s account, you can step up to a full survivor’s benefit on that same account. Be sure to notify Social Security of your spouse’s passing. Do not cash any Social Security check sent to your spouse, starting in the month after your spouse’s passing. If you are receiving payments electronically, notify the bank and arrange to have any such payments returned.


  • You and your spouse were not yet collecting benefits but you are both old enough to begin collecting benefits. You can begin collecting the survivor’s benefit against your spouse’s account immediately. It will be calculated based on your spouse’s age and earnings history. If you continue working, a portion of the benefit may be reduced in proportion to your earnings if you are under the full retirement age. If you earn enough on your record to eventually claim a higher benefit, you can claim the larger amount at a later date.


  • One of you was working and the other was claiming benefits. If you were collecting spousal benefits, you can step up to the survivor’s benefit. If you are working you can immediately claim the survivor’s benefit. And if you are collecting based on your own account, you can continue that or claim the survivor’s benefit, whichever proves to be better.


Many factors will determine the size of each possible benefit, including your spouse’s age at death, your current age, your full retirement age, and your spouse’s full retirement age. Other benefit terms are governed by disability and the existence of dependents.


A possible exception to these scenarios would be partners in a same-sex marriage. While federal law recognizes same-sex marriages, spousal benefits under Social Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs are generally available only to couples who also live in states that recognize their marriages. Those state-recognition requirements are built in to the statutes enabling Social Security and Veterans programs, and these laws will require additional Congressional action to change. There may be some administrative leeway in carrying out some policies, but at this writing, the safest course for a surviving spouse in these circumstances could be to pursue Social Security claims as the resident of a state in which the marriage was recognized.


Let me help you weigh your options in this complex decision.



This information is derived from the survivors’ benefits pages of the Social Security website.


Ivie P. Burns, II 

Senior Vice President
Financial Advisor

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