When Your Spouse Dies, How Does Social Security Work?

When Your Spouse Dies, How Does Social Security Work?

May 16, 2023

According to AARP, approximately 3.8 million widows, widowers, and divorced individuals were receiving survivor benefits as of March 2023.

A surviving spouse can collect 100 percent of the late spouse's benefit if they have reached full retirement age. However, if the deceased spouse claimed benefits before reaching full retirement age, the survivor's benefit amount will be lower, and adjusted depending on how early they claimed. The full retirement age for survivor benefits is currently 66 and 2 months for people born in 1957, gradually increasing to 67 over the next few years.

In most cases, if a widow or widower is at least 60 years old and was married to the deceased for at least nine months at the time of death, they qualify for survivor benefits. However, there are exceptions to these requirements. If the late beneficiary's death was accidental or occurred in the line of U.S. military duty, there is no length-of-marriage requirement. A disabled surviving spouse can apply for survivor benefits as early as age 50 if the disability occurred within seven years of the spouse's death. Additionally, if the surviving spouse is caring for children from the marriage who are under 16 or disabled, they can apply for benefits at any age.

Remarriage can affect eligibility for survivor benefits. If the surviving spouse remarried before turning 60 (50 if disabled), they cannot receive survivor benefits. However, eligibility can be regained if the subsequent marriage ends. Remarrying at or past 60 (50 if disabled) does not affect eligibility for survivor benefits.

The survivor benefit amount is generally based on the benefit the late spouse was receiving from Social Security at the time of death or was entitled to receive based on age and earnings history if they had not yet claimed benefits. The actual payment amount varies based on the age and family circumstances of the survivor.

Some important points to keep in mind are that survivor benefits can be received by divorced former spouses of Social Security recipients if they were married for at least 10 years, and it is not necessary for the surviving spouse to have worked enough to qualify for Social Security on their own. If eligible for their own retirement benefit, they will receive the higher of the two benefit amounts. If the survivor is below full retirement age and still working, their survivor benefit may be affected by Social Security's earnings limit.

Finally, it is important to note that, if the surviving spouse cannot delay receipt of social security benefits past their full retirement age (FRA) and get the 2/3rd of 1% roll up every month until age 70.  If you've waited past your full retirement age to claim your survivor benefit, the social security administration will gross up your accumulated earnings in a lump sum payment.

If you or someone you know has recently lost a spouse and has questions regarding their social security benefits and/or over financial plan, please feel free to reach out to me directly.


Dwight W. Rich, CFP®


The information provided is based on carefully selected sources, believed to be reliable, but whose accuracy or completeness cannot be guaranteed. All information is subject to change without notice.