Dear Rusty: My husband is 65 and I am 55. He has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. My question is, will I continue receiving his full social security check every month after his passing? Will the amount decrease? Signed: Tearful Wife
Dear Tearful Wife: So sorry to hear of your husband’s condition. If he is now receiving Social Security benefits, when he passes your husband’s Social Security payments will stop. You will be able to keep the payment received in the month your husband dies (which is for the previous month), but any payments made thereafter must be returned to the Social Security Administration (SSA). FYI, normally the funeral director who handles arrangements sends a death certificate to Social Security, which will stop your husband’s SS benefits effective with the payment for his month of death. However, you should notify the bank which receives your husband’s SS payment of his death, and they will automatically return any later incorrect payments to the SSA.
At age 55, you are too young to collect survivor benefits from your husband (unless you are disabled, in which case you can). You will first become eligible for a survivor benefit from your husband when you are 60 years old, but if you claim it at that time, it will be cut by 28.5% from the full amount. Your maximum benefit as your husband’s survivor is 100% of the benefit he is now receiving, but you can only get the full amount by waiting until your own full retirement age (FRA) of 67 to claim it. Any SS benefit claimed before full retirement age is reduced.
If you are still working when you become eligible for your survivor benefit, you should be aware that Social Security will impose an earnings limit until you reach your FRA. The earnings limit changes annually (for 2022 it is $19,560) but, if it is exceeded, SS will take away benefits equal to $1 for every $2 you are over the limit (half of what you exceed the limit by). If you work full time and your earnings are high enough, you may be disqualified from receiving survivor benefits (because your benefit amount may not offset the penalty for exceeding the earnings limit). The earnings limit applies until you reach your full retirement age, at which time your survivor benefit also reaches maximum (100% of the amount your husband was receiving at his death).
If you will also be eligible for your own SS retirement benefit (from your own lifetime work record), and your own benefit at maximum will be more than your survivor benefit, you can choose to take your survivor benefit first and delay claiming your own SS retirement benefit until it is more than your survivor benefit. Your own benefit will reach maximum at age 70 so you could, if desired, take your survivor benefit first and your own larger benefit later. Or, once you are 62 you can claim only your own reduced benefit first and allow your survivor benefit to reach maximum at your full retirement age. In other words, you have a choice of which benefit to claim, and you should try to maximize the one which will give you the highest benefit for the rest of your life. But remember, the earnings test will apply to any benefit you claim before reaching your full retirement age.
This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at [email protected].