Liz Weston: Why did my Social Security benefits go down when my partner died?

Dear Liz: My husband recently passed away. Since he and I received essentially the same amount from Social Security, I will not receive any additional money. Can you explain this? Social Security couldn’t when I both called and went to the local office. I did not see this covered in your column. I think that would be a problem for many spouses.

Reply: The issue of survivor benefits has been mentioned frequently in this column, but unfortunately many people still do not understand that their benefits will drop, sometimes precipitously, when their spouse dies.

When a member of a married couple dies, one of their two social security checks disappears and the survivor receives the larger of the two benefits. If your husband’s check had been more than yours, that amount would become your survivor benefit. If your benefit was the higher of the two, you would continue to receive this amount.

Many people ignore the impact their claim decisions will have on their surviving spouse, which is unfortunate since the survivor could live for years, if not decades, on this reduced income. Couples can often maximize their benefits and lessen the severity of this drop in income by ensuring that the highest income delays their request for Social Security as much as possible, ideally up to its maximum at age 70.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions can be directed to him at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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