Q&A: About spousal and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 82 and receive $786 from Social Security. My wife is 75 and receives $1,400 from Social Security. I believe you said that a lower beneficiary could get the same amount as the higher beneficiary. When I contacted Social Security, I was informed that my benefit needed to be less than half of my spouse’s in order to qualify. When I asked him where in the regulations I could find that information, he abruptly hung up. Was he right?

Answer: Yes. The only time you would get the same amount as your wife is if she died, and at that point you would get only the survivor benefit (one check for $1,400, instead of the two checks totaling $2,186 you receive now as a couple).

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits. Spousal benefits are what you might receive while your wife is alive. Spousal benefits can be as much as 50% of the higher earner’s “primary insurance amount,” or what she was entitled to at her full retirement age. If your retirement benefit is larger than that spousal benefit amount, you would get your own benefit rather than the spousal benefit.

The Social Security site has plenty of information on how benefits work as well as calculators to help you estimate your benefits. You can start by reading its publication titled “Retirement Benefits” at https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10035.pdf.


  1. sylvester kueh says

    I was a local government employee before I retired last year. Prior to that, I worked 2 years outside and did not not have enough point to claimed any SSI benefit. My wife worked for the Bank and retired in 2012 at age 62 and received about $1,500 per month SSI pay. I applied for spousal benefit on 2017 at age 67 and got pay for her 50% SSI benefit. I retired on December 2020 and is getting about $7,300/month for my local government pension. Am I still entitle for the Spousal benefit? I read an article on SSI Government Pension Offset which says a government employee who didn’t pay into Social Security and earned a government pension has no offset. In my case, I believe I am still entitled to the spousal benefit. Is that correct? Thanks

    • Liz Weston says

      If you’re receiving a pension from a job that did not pay into Social Security, your spousal benefit will be reduced and perhaps eliminated. Please call Social Security for details.