Welcome to our “Social Security Q&A” series. You ask a question about Social Security, and a guest expert answers it.
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Today’s question comes from Edward:
“I have read conflicting answers to this in the financial media: My wife and I are each collecting Social Security based on each other’s individual quarters of earnings. If one of us passes, will the survivor collect the other’s share in addition to their own share?
I am receiving $2,155 a month in Social Security benefits. My wife receives $1,380 a month. And hypothetically, for other readers, what happens if one spouse is collecting on the other spouse’s earnings?”
Confusion about survivor’s benefits
Edward, I always dislike being the bearer of bad news, but you seem to be somewhat confused about the rules for survivor’s benefits. You are suggesting the following:
- If your wife dies first, you would receive $3,535 a month (= $2,155 + $1,380)
- If you die first, your wife would likewise receive $3,535 a month (her benefit plus your benefit)
The above misrepresents how survivor’s benefits work.
When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse can switch from their own benefit to a survivor’s benefit, if that switch raises their monthly benefit. One implication of this rule is that the spouse with the higher benefit would never switch to survivor’s benefits.
For example, in your case, your benefit is $2,155. So, you would not switch from that amount to $1,380. In contrast, if you die first, your wife would switch from her benefit of $1,380 to a survivor’s benefit of $2,155.
Edward, you also ask about what happens if one spouse is collecting on the other spouse’s earnings. As an illustration, suppose your wife’s retirement benefit was $500 rather than $1,380. Assume this is her full retirement age benefit. Since she claimed at her full retirement age, she qualifies for a spousal supplement that would bring her total benefit up to one-half of your benefit.
That is, she would receive $500 in retirement benefits plus a spousal supplement of $578, bringing her total benefit up to $1,078. Now if you die first, she simply switches to your benefit of $2,155. Or, if she dies first, you do not switch; you continue receiving your larger amount of $2,155.
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I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years.
Disclaimer: We strive to provide accurate information with regard to the subject matter covered. It is offered with the understanding that we are not offering legal, accounting, investment or other professional advice or services, and that the SSA alone makes all final determinations on your eligibility for benefits and the benefit amounts. Our advice on claiming strategies does not comprise a comprehensive financial plan. You should consult with your financial adviser regarding your individual situation.
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