How Do Social Security Survivor Benefits Add Up?
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. Because you and your husband are both currently collecting benefits, if one of you passes away, the survivor will be eligible to collect the higher of the two benefits. In other words, you can either continue to collect your own benefit or switch to a survivor benefit if that would be greater. There's no double-dipping.
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 monthly Social Security payment is 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 your husband's benefit is higher than your own. In this case, if he passes away before you, you'll be eligible to collect 100% of his higher benefit. A surviving spouse can collect survivor benefits as early as age 60 (earlier if disabled or caring for dependent children), but the benefit would be incrementally reduced each month 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 survivor benefit. The Social Security Administration would then verify that the survivor benefit would be higher than your own and adjust your benefit accordingly.
For Couples Not Yet Getting Benefits