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Social Security Survivors Benefits: What Is Your Spouse Entitled To When You Die?

You and your spouse may be relying on your portion of your Social Security Retirement Benefits to pay most of your household expenses, especially if you receive the higher payment. What happens to your spouse’s income if you pass away? Most people are aware that Social Security may pay survivor’s benefits to widows, widowers, and divorced former spouses, but they may not know exactly how much the survivor is entitled to. The answer will vary depending on an array of scenarios.

For example, assume that you and your spouse are both over age 66 and already receive full Social Security retirement benefits on your own records; you receive $2,000 per month and your spouse receives $800 per month. If you pass away first, your spouse is entitled to the higher benefit level, or in this case, $2,000. In effect, he or she would continue to receive his or her own benefit plus the differential that would make the difference of the higher benefit from the deceased spouse’s record. Here, your surviving spouse has already reached full retirement age. If your spouse, on the other hand, elects to take survivor’s benefits but has not reached full retirement age (is between age 60 and full retirement age) then the benefit would be reduced due to “early retirement.”

There is another administrative issue that often surfaces when a Social Security recipient passes away: what happens to the last check? Let’s say, for example, that you pass away in November and the Social Security Administration direct deposits your payment in December. Benefits are paid one month in arrears, so the December payment is for the month of November. You do not earn a payment, however, unless you live through the entire month.

A surviving spouse is also entitled to a one time lump sum payment of $255 as long as the spouse was living in the same household as the deceased spouse or is receiving benefits on the deceased spouse’s record. The surviving spouse must apply for this benefit within two years of the date of death. Funeral homes often assist the surviving spouse in applying for the lump sum benefit and applying it to the funeral bill.

Funeral homes may also make the initial notice of the deceased spouse’s death to the Social Security Administration. Regardless, it is recommended that the agency be contacted as soon as possible after the death so that the unearned benefit is not deposited in the account.