Q&A: Balancing disability and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My 70-year-old husband is retiring at the end of the month. I’m 64 and collecting Social Security disability. If he should pass away before me, which is not likely considering my medical conditions, will I still get at least half of his Social Security income instead of my own, if it’s more than what I’m already collecting? I do understand that my disability benefit will stop at 65. I will then be collecting a regular Social Security benefit at my retirement age of 67. We are totally confused and trying to decide whether to forgo getting a retirement annuity benefit for me from his employer pension if he should pass before me.

Answer: Your disability benefit doesn’t stop at 65. It continues until you reach your full retirement age of 67, and then converts to a retirement benefit. The name for the benefit changes but the amount doesn’t.

If the amount you’re receiving is less than what your husband gets, and your husband dies first, you will get a survivor’s benefit equal to what he was getting. Survivors don’t get their own benefit plus their spouse’s; they just get the larger of the two benefits.

With pensions, it would be smart to get expert advice before you sign away your right to a survivor benefit. The default payout option for a married person is typically “joint and survivor,” which means the survivor would continue to receive the checks after the person dies. Opting for a “single life” payout instead increases the monthly check, but the money stops when he dies. While it may seem more likely you’ll die first, there are no guarantees and waiving your right to a survivor benefit could lead to a steep drop in your income.

The pension may offer different joint and survivor options, such as 100%, 75% and 50%. With the 100% option, the payments continue to be the same if he dies first. The 75% and 50% options reduce the payment after his death to 75% or 50% of the previous amount. Choosing 75% or 50% could be a decent compromise that allows you to get more money now but still get payments should he die first.

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  1. Regarding the post abt the 70 year old husband who is retiring and his 64 year old spouse who is on SSDI, my experience with SSDI was different.
    My husband is 67 and still working, not collecting retirement or SS, and I have been on SSDI for 20 years. I turned 65 this earlier this year and SS converted me from SSDI to SSI at full benefit. My normal retirement age is 66 and 2 months.

    I immediately called Social Security (twice)and he explained that I was already collecting on SSDI the full amount of my retirement at age 66 and 2 months so I was placed on regular Social Security with no penalty at the full retirement monthly amount. He said it was just being drawn from a different pot. It made sense when the Social Security rep explained it, but I cannot say that I truly understand the logic.