What happens to your Social Security payments when one spouse dies

  • PBS | by: Philip Moeller |
  • 07/12/2018
Editor’s Note: Journalist Philip Moeller is here to provide the answers you need on aging and retirement. His weekly column, “Ask Phil,” aims to help older Americans and their families by answering their health care and financial questions. Phil is the author of “Get What’s Yours for Medicare,” and co-author of “Get What’s Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Send your questions to Phil; and he will answer as many as he can.

Christine: I have searched the Internet and found no answer to my dad’s problem. Mom just died, at 74. She earned $1,400 a month in Social Security. Dad is 74 and gets $1,200 a month. This was their only income and it barely covered their expenses. They have no savings.

Now Social Security has told my dad that he will get only $1,400 a month and that his benefit would stop! That is just not enough to live on. I can’t believe our government does this to the elderly! Is there something more we need to know? Is there a way to get both? Now, besides losing his wife of 50 years, he will be in debt for the first time. Is there anything he can do?

Phil Moeller: Sadly, these are the rules. When one spouse dies, the lower Social Security payment goes away. I can cite you all sorts of reasons why this is the case, and even why it is “fair,” but they won’t alter the unpleasant surprise faced by your dad and many other surviving spouses.

When Social Security was created in 1935, very few women were in the workforce. The man’s benefit was the dominant source of retirement income, so family benefits did not drop off sharply when one spouse died. With the percentage of women in the labor force now about equal to men, this is no longer the case. And with the first baby boomers now age 72, the volume of these very difficult survivor situations will be increasing sharply.

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