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Ask the Expert: How do Social Security survivor’s benefits work?

You’ve written that when a wife becomes a widow, her spousal Social Security benefit changes into a larger survivor benefit. Does this occur automatically when the Social Security Administration is advised of the husband’s death? Or must the widow submit an application for the enhanced survivor benefit after she’s eligible for it?

If a widow or widower is already collecting a spousal benefit, the Social Security Administration automatically changes it to a survivor benefit after being notified of that person’s death.

For readers who don’t know, the maximum spousal benefit you can collect based on your husband or wife’s work record is 50 percent of the amount he or she is eligible to collect at full retirement age. But the maximum survivor benefit is 100 percent of your deceased spouse’s benefit — and a survivor benefit includes any extra credits that your late spouse may have earned by postponing Social Security after his or her full retirement age.

The same rules apply to divorced people who collect a spousal benefit based on their former husband or wife’s work record. (And yes, a surviving spouse and a surviving former spouse can both collect survivor benefits based on the decedent’s work record.)

Survivors who haven’t yet filed for Social Security, or are already collecting a retirement or disability benefit that’s based on their own work records must apply for a survivor benefit based on their late spouse’s (or late ex-spouse’s) record. They don’t get it automatically. If the agency determines that their survivor benefit would be more money than the benefit they currently receive, they’ll start getting the larger amount.


To report a death or apply for survivor benefits, call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or make an appointment at your local Social Security office.


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