Social Security Q&A: What Happens to My Spouse If I Die Before Filing for Benefits?

Social Security Q&A: What Happens to My Spouse If I Die Before Filing for Benefits?
Photo by Jacob Lund / 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, 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 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 benefit and a widower’s benefit 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 widow’s benefits at their full retirement age. In contrast to widow’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.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer on today’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page. And if you find this information useful, please share it!

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.

Learn everything you need to plan your dream retirement

The Only Retirement Guide You'll Ever Need gives you the knowledge you need to retire on your own terms. Sure, you can pay a financial adviser, but this online course gives you total control to create a custom retirement plan around the things that make you happy.

You're going to get expert, personalized advice. You'll have access to the latest tools. And when it's complete, you'll be able to approach your retirement confidently and with peace of mind.

It's time to plan the best years of your life. Let's get started.

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

Popular Articles

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

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

The Secret to Getting Dollar Store Items for Free
The Secret to Getting Dollar Store Items for Free

If you know where to look, you can score freebies at the dollar store regularly.

8 Restaurant Chains With Discounts for Diners Age 50 or Older
8 Restaurant Chains With Discounts for Diners Age 50 or Older

Some restaurant chains offer great senior discounts. Here’s what you need to know.

View this page without ads

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

Get Started

Comments