Q&A: Social Security is insurance

Dear Liz: My wife was 69 at the time of her passing. She was still working and 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 Social Security. All I qualify for is a $255 death benefit. I asked what happened to her money that was 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 is larger than the survivor benefit you would get based on her work record, then no.

Your question illustrates two common misconceptions about Social Security.

Social Security is not a 401(k) or other retirement fund that you pay into over time and then draw from in retirement. Social Security is actually insurance. (Social Security’s formal name is Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, or OASDI.) It’s a pay-as-you-go system where the payroll taxes collected from current workers pay for the benefits received by people who are retired or disabled and their dependents.

The other misconception is that survivors are qualified for additional benefits on top of their own. In fact, survivors get the larger of the two benefits a couple was receiving — not both. This is, unfortunately, often a surprise to widows and widowers who see their incomes plunge after their partners die.

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