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When a husband dies, does the wife get his Social Security?

The answer is: Maybe!

Social Security Administration sealSocial Security benefits are very complex. Survivor benefits are complex as well. Since we specialize in helping widows, we are approaching the topic from a widow’s perspective.

The first thing we suggest is to not assume you know what your benefits are. We have heard lots of incorrect information that people pass from one to another. Or information that applies to one set of circumstances, but not yours. There are lots of internet articles with wrong and ambiguous information as well.

The best source of general information on survivor benefits is the Social Security Administration’s website:

The only way to really know what your specific benefits are is to call Social Security. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommended widows visit their local Social Security office to speak with a representative. But many offices are still not seeing people in person yet. So you should call first.

The first thing to understand about Social Security benefits is that there is a difference between YOUR benefit, which is based on YOUR earnings history, and the SURVIVOR benefit which is based on your HUSBAND’S earnings history.

Generally, you won’t receive a survivor benefit if you are under the age of 60 – unless – you are caring for a child or children age 18 or younger. Disabled children can receive benefits longer.

A Few Examples of Social Security Survivor Benefits

Let’s look at a quick example of how this might work. You are 45, you have a ten-year-old child, and your husband worked long enough to accumulate a Social Security benefit. Because your child is a minor, you will receive a survivor benefit based on your husband’s earnings history until the child turns 16. Then your child receives that survivor benefit directly until they turn 18 – or until they graduate from high school or turn 19. Then that survivor benefit stops. When you turn 60, you are eligible to receive a survivor benefit based on your husband’s earnings. If you are working, that survivor benefit can be reduced depending on how much you are earning. When you reach your Full Retirement Age (as specified by Social Security), you can receive those survivor benefits and they can’t be reduced by your earnings.

Let’s say that after your child graduates from high school, you are working and don’t stop until at least age 62. Your earnings have qualified you to receive your own retirement benefit based on your earnings. Social Security will compare the survivor benefit you are still eligible for with your retirement benefit and pay you the higher of the two amounts. A widow can only ever receive one benefit.

The “one benefit” is a rule of Social Security that many widows are unprepared for. Let’s say that both a husband and wife are over the age of 62 and they are both receiving retirement benefits. His is based on his earnings history and hers is based on her earnings history. When the husband dies, his benefit stops immediately. Hers continues. Meanwhile, Social Security reviews the husband’s old benefit versus the wife’s current benefit. If the husband’s was higher, they will adjust the widow’s benefit up to the higher amount. If her benefit is higher, she continues to receive her own benefit. But she only gets one benefit. Many retired widows are surprised by this cut to their monthly income.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. As we said above, it is a very complex topic and each situation is very dependent on that family’s specific circumstances. Contact Social Security as early as possible and ask them what your options are. If you are unsure how to proceed, consider talking to a fee-only financial planner or a Social Security specialist.

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