Q&A: How Social Security survivor benefits work

Dear Liz: Will my wife, after I’m gone, be able to claim one half of my Social Security benefits because she is the surviving spouse? I am concerned and confused, because her monthly Social Security benefit is much larger than mine. Does that affect this aspect of the available benefit?

Answer: If by “gone” you mean “dead,” then no, that’s not how survivor benefits work.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse does not continue to get two benefit checks. The survivor is given the larger of the couple’s two benefits. If she’s already receiving much more than you, then she will continue taking her own benefit and your checks will end.

The “one half” benefit is the spousal benefit, which is paid out while the primary earner is still alive. Typically when married people apply for Social Security, the retirement benefit they earned is compared with their spousal benefit, which is up to one half of what the other spouse has earned. (The amounts are reduced if the person applies for benefits before his or her own full retirement age.) The applicants get the larger of the two checks.

Spousal benefits also are available to divorced spouses, if the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

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  1. John Weyrich says

    When do Americans start to enjoy life? I worked in Australia with 4 to 7 weeks per year paid vacation, 3 weeks per year paid sick leave, long service leave and retired at age 50. We have superannuation and everyone gets a aged pension. I pay nothing for health care and all my medication is cheap. What exactly do you get for being an American, the chance to work til you drop and pray you don’t get sick doing it? I will never run out of money. I have real bad dreams of waking up in America.