What Happens to My Spouse If I Die Before Claiming Social Security?

Senior couple
Photo by michaeljung / Shutterstock.com

Welcome to “Social Security Q&A.” You ask a Social Security question, and our guest expert provides the answer.

You can learn how to ask a question of your own below. And if you would like a personalized report detailing your optimal Social Security claiming strategy, click here. Check it out: It doesn’t cost much and could result in receiving thousands of dollars more in benefits over your lifetime.

This week’s question comes from Don:

“My wife will be 62 next year. I am 62 presently. She has worked for about 15 years and became a stay-at-home mother. I have been working all my life and still do so presently. I am not drawing Social Security yet. If we both were qualified to, she would draw less than me.

If she starts drawing at age 62, and I continue to work and not draw mine, but die before I begin collecting benefits, would she miss out on drawing mine instead of hers? I know that if we are both drawing, the surviving spouse gets the larger of the two checks. But what if one passes before drawing?”

Nothing to worry about

Don, you have nothing to be concerned about here. Suppose you die before you claim your benefits. For calculating survivor’s benefits — also known as “widow’s benefits” — the Social Security Administration assumes you claimed benefits on the day that you died.

As an example, assume that you die on your 69th birthday and that you had not claimed benefits. Your wife will receive a widow’s benefit equal to the amount you would have gotten had you applied on that day.

This provision discussed above provides an important incentive for the higher-benefit spouse to delay claiming benefits. The higher-benefit spouse of a traditional couple is typically the husband, who generally has a shorter life expectancy than the wife. Moreover, wives tend to be younger than husbands.

So, the husband’s benefits may well outlive him for many years. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that a significant number of husbands fail to give little, if any, weight to survivor’s benefits when they make their claiming decision.

How surviving spouses get preferential treatment

There are several other ways that Social Security offers preferential treatment for surviving spouses (and surviving ex-spouses who were married at least 10 years). I’m going to talk here about “widows,” but the same facts apply to “widowers.”

First, widows can claim benefits as early as age 60. In contrast, spousal benefits cannot be claimed until age 62. Of course, early claiming always carries a penalty with it.

Second, widows are permitted to switch between their own benefits and survivor’s benefits when doing so is financially advantageous.

For example, some widows claim survivor’s benefits first, letting their own benefit grow, perhaps up to age 70. Alternatively, some widows claim their own benefit first and then switch to survivor’s benefits at their full retirement age. In contrast to survivor’s benefits, switching spousal and personal retirement benefits in this way is no longer available to spouses born in 1954 or later.

Another advantage available to widows is that they can remarry after turning 60 and not lose their survivor’s benefits. Ex-spouses who are not widowed do not have this opportunity. If the new marriage makes them eligible for spousal benefits on the new spouse’s record, then all spousal benefits coming from a previous marriage are lost.

Clearly, these can be complicated issues. In general, people thinking about claiming Social Security benefits may well benefit from inexpensive professional help.

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter, just as you would with any email in your inbox. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here. It’s free, only takes a few seconds, and will get you valuable information every day!

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. So, it’s better not to ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you.

About me

I hold a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and taught economics at the University of Delaware for many years. In 2009, I co-founded SocialSecurityChoices.com, an internet company that provides advice on Social Security claiming decisions. You can learn more about that by clicking here.

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.

Find the right financial adviser

Finding a financial adviser you can trust doesn't have to be hard. A great place to start is with SmartAsset's free financial adviser matching tool, which connects you with up to three qualified financial advisers in five minutes. Each adviser is vetted by SmartAsset and is legally required to act in your best interests.

If you're ready to be matched with local advisers who will help you reach your financial goals, get started now.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
8 Things I Always Buy at Costco
8 Things I Always Buy at Costco

From bacon to birthday cakes, here are my favorite deals at the popular warehouse store.

Stop Overpaying for These 10 Common Purchases
Stop Overpaying for These 10 Common Purchases

The best price for many of these items is “free.”

5 Medicare Mistakes to Avoid for a Healthy Retirement
5 Medicare Mistakes to Avoid for a Healthy Retirement

Medicare can be confusing. Beware these missteps — which can hike your costs.

14 Uses for WD-40 That Save Money, Time or Headaches
14 Uses for WD-40 That Save Money, Time or Headaches

WD-40 is handy in a lot more situations than you likely realize.

7 Surprising Things That Damage Your Credit Score
7 Surprising Things That Damage Your Credit Score

A seemingly small stumble can cause your credit score to plummet.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers
This Gas Station Scam Is Victimizing More Drivers

For the second straight year, a growing number of Americans believe they’ve fallen prey to this scam.

7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast
7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast

Your financial security might soon depend upon the strength of your credit score.

This Is the Most Popular Age for Claiming Social Security
This Is the Most Popular Age for Claiming Social Security

Both men and women are most likely to start receiving Social Security benefits at this age.

Could You Give Up These 7 Expenses to Save Thousands of Dollars a Year?
Could You Give Up These 7 Expenses to Save Thousands of Dollars a Year?

You could save more than $30,000 by setting aside these costly expenses for just one year.

6 Things You Should Never Buy at Trader Joe’s
6 Things You Should Never Buy at Trader Joe’s

We love Trader Joe’s for plenty of reasons. But think twice about this handful of products.

7 Unusual Ways to Declutter Your Home
7 Unusual Ways to Declutter Your Home

Tired of possessions weighing you down? Here are seven ways to declutter painlessly and effectively.

Don’t Toss These 7 Household Items — Sell Them
Don’t Toss These 7 Household Items — Sell Them

Here’s how to earn cash as you give new life to these unwanted items.

6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have
6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have

Few retirees have these documents that are crucial to their golden years — especially during a pandemic.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

These jobs pay more than the typical job in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required.

Eat This Food If You Want to Avoid Alzheimer’s Disease
Eat This Food If You Want to Avoid Alzheimer’s Disease

One type of food associated with the Mediterranean diet offers especially large benefits.

11 Expenses That Quietly Drain Your Wallet
11 Expenses That Quietly Drain Your Wallet

It’s scandalously easy to overspend in these areas of your life.

21 Things You Should Always Buy at a Dollar Store
21 Things You Should Always Buy at a Dollar Store

Dollar stores have great bargains on both everyday and occasional purchases.

9 Dumb Ways You Are Ruining Your Home Value
9 Dumb Ways You Are Ruining Your Home Value

Homeowners, beware these mistakes that can drive away potential buyers.

18 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now
18 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020
The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020

Based on dozens of metrics tied to affordability, quality of life and health care, these are not ideal places to spend retirement.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

7 Tips for Building an Emergency Stockpile
7 Tips for Building an Emergency Stockpile

A pandemic or natural disaster could leave you reliant on your existing food supply. Is your pantry prepared?

15 Outrageously Overpriced Products — and How to Save on Them
15 Outrageously Overpriced Products — and How to Save on Them

Retailers mark up products by hundreds of times their cost — but you don’t have to pay the premium.

Why Half of Retirees Now Owe Taxes on Social Security
Why Half of Retirees Now Owe Taxes on Social Security

Growing numbers of seniors are paying taxes on their Social Security benefits, but you might be able to avoid this fate.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.