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Does Social Security continue after a spouse dies?

        Money | Taxes

Nobody wants to think about it, but what happens to your spouse’s Social Security benefits after death?
Nobody wants to think about it, but what happens to your spouse’s Social Security benefits after death?
MariaDubova/iStock/Thinkstock

Social Security is a program designed to help take care of many Americans financially. You pay into it during your working years, and it becomes available when you reach retirement age (or if you become disabled). These benefits serve as a supplemental income from some, while others depend on Social Security payments for their entire income.

If your spouse is older than you are, he or she may begin collecting Social Security benefits before you do. This extra income may be crucial to your financial well-being.

Still, it's important to plan for the worst-case scenario. Although it's something nobody wants to think about, what happens to your spouse's Social Security benefits after death? The short answer is that you can continue to get them, but with some caveats. Social Security maintains a Survivors section with detailed information on its site, but here are the basics.

Typically, if your spouse passes away, Social Security first pays out a one-time death benefit of $255. After that, you can activate the Social Security survivor benefits. The government calculates the amount of Social Security you can receive from your deceased spouse based on a few factors.

If your spouse was already collecting benefits at the time of death, then you'll receive that same amount -- with the addition of any cost of living adjustments, if enough time has passed to warrant a change between the date of death and when you apply.

If your spouse was collecting Social Security early, you'll still receive benefits. However, these benefits are decreased according to how much they would have been if the spouse who had been collecting them was still alive. Social Security pays out decreased benefits if a person applies to collect before retirement age (unless there are special circumstances).

If your spouse passed away before ever filing for Social Security benefits, once you reach retirement age, you'll be eligible for 100 percent of your spouse's benefits. However you can't collect both your spouse's Social Security benefits and your own. Fortunately, the government allows you to collect the one that pays out the most.

A few other things to keep in mind [source: Blankenship]:

  • If you have a disability, your survivor benefits can kick in at age 50, instead of the typical age of 62. However, your benefits will be reduced by about 28.5 percent.
  • If you remarry before the age of 60, you're no longer eligible for survivor benefits. But if you get divorced or are widowed again, those survivor benefits are once again available to you.
  • If you are widowed more than once, you're entitled to the highest-paying Social Security survivor benefits.
  • If you remarry after the age of 60, your survivor benefits are still available.
  • Even if you and your spouse were divorced when he or she died, you can still receive survivor benefits, as long you were married more than 10 years and didn't get remarried.

We all hope to spend our retirement years with our husband or wife and with few financial worries. The Social Security system is set up to help us with that. But if you do find yourself widowed, you can still receive your spouse's Social Security after he or she dies.