Vintage Social Security poster

Field Work

Know the Social Security Survivor Benefit

My divorced aunt did not work while she was raising eight children. After her former husband died, she was pleasantly surprised to learn she could start collecting his Social Security.

She has a lot of company. Nearly two out of three men and women in a new survey by RAND were unaware of this rule: a divorced person who was married for at least 10 years is entitled to the deceased spouses’s survivor benefit. In fact, she would even get the benefit if he remarried.

In the case of couples who were still married when the spouse died, the marriage had to last only nine months for the survivor to get the benefit. Fewer than half of the people surveyed by the RAND researchers were aware of this rule.

The responses were no more impressive for some of the other questions about Social Security’s survivor benefit. This benefit is based on the higher-earning spouse’s work record – typically the husband. Even a wife who used to work and is collecting Social Security based on her work record is eligible to switch to her husband’s benefit after he dies – if his check is larger than hers.

To make the switch in this particular case, the widow must file with the Social Security Administration either online or at a local office. (However, if the wife never worked and is at retirement age, she will automatically start receiving her late-husband’s check.)

Unmarried partners sometimes operate under a misconception too: three out of four think, incorrectly, either that unmarried people can get the survivor benefit, or they don’t know.

One thing to note about this study is that Americans of all ages were surveyed, and it is not surprising that young adults would have little knowledge of program benefits intended for widows.  But age doesn’t seem to bring wisdom: the results were equally dismal in a similar earlier survey of individuals who were at least 50 years old.

April is National Social Security Month. Couples should celebrate by learning more about how Social Security works – it’s critical to a widow’s standard of living.

The research reported herein was performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

7 Responses to Know the Social Security Survivor Benefit

  1. Brian says:

    Every few years we attend a local SS seminar that one of the many local banks, credit unions, attorneys, senior center, or other senior-related organizations host. Almost every month there is sure to be some organization in the region hosting a seminar on SS, Medicare, or other retirement-related financial topic.

    Is it unusual (nationwide) for various organizations to host SS information sessions like these? More people should attend these (typically) free events.

  2. Cara says:

    I’m 57 and have worked solid and full-time since I was about 25. My husband is 71 and started collecting his benefit from part-time self employment work at age 62.

    If I were to die BEFORE “retirement age,” would he be able to switch over to my benefit and, potentially, collect more?

    • Clair says:

      Yes, Cara, your husband would switch to your benefit (if it is larger). Your benefit would be calculated on your average lifetime earnings, with the lowest five years dropped.

    • Cara – “Yes, absolutely,” says Steve Richardson at the Boston office of the Social Security Administration. (I called him for you).

      I urge you, however, to contact your local Social Security office and go over your specific situation with someone directly.

      According to Steve, however, your husband would be eligible for your benefit because it’s always the higher earnings in a married couple that result in a larger survivor benefit. If you’re the higher earner – and it sounds like you are – he would receive your survivor benefit.

      A related rule that would apply, if you were to die, is that Social Security would only pay him the larger of the two benefit checks – and not the combination of the two.

      Thank you for the question!

  3. Keith Meintjes says:

    There is very good software available for you to “optimize” your SS choices. One of them is from Laurence Kotlikoff, author of “Get What’s Yours.”

    It’s well worth the $50 or so it will cost to make a $200,000 decision.

    Of course, it works best if you have not yet claimed benefits and can plan your strategy.

  4. Ellis says:

    Prof. Kotlikoff’s book (“Get What’s Yours”) is an excellent guide to the somewhat complex rules of Social Security.

    It could help a beneficiary avoid a costly mistake by providing accurate information for navigating the system. It is not unheard of for Social Security employees to provide inaccurate information, so being informed can be a valuable asset. I know it helped my family.