Q&A: Social Security death benefits

Dear Liz: My wife was 69 at the time of her passing. She was still working and was not collecting Social Security. I am 72, retired and collecting Social Security. When I spoke with Social Security, I was told that I cannot collect on my wife’s work history. All I qualify for is a $255 death benefit. I asked what happened to her money collected all these years. I was told it goes into a general fund. Is there anything I can get from my wife’s Social Security?

Answer: If your current benefit was larger than the one your spouse had earned before her untimely death, then you were given the correct answer: a $255 death benefit.

People sometimes mistakenly believe that surviving spouse benefits are something they can get in addition to their own benefit. But when one member of a couple dies, the survivor gets only the larger of the two checks the couple was previously receiving.

The taxes we pay into Social Security don’t go into retirement accounts with our names on them — the money goes instead to pay benefits to current retirees. There’s no guarantee that what you get out will be proportionate to what you contributed. Most people will get more from the system than they paid in, but some will get less and some, unfortunately, get nothing.