Liz Weston: Why did my Social Security benefits drop when my spouse died? –

Dear Liz: My husband recently died. Since he and I received essentially the same amount from Social Security, I will not receive any additional money. Can you explain this? Social Security could not when I both called and went to the local office. I have not seen this addressed in your column. I would think this would be a problem for many spouses.

Answer: The issue of survivor benefits has been addressed frequently in this column, but unfortunately many people still don’t understand that their benefits will drop, sometimes precipitously, when their spouse dies.

When one member of a married couple dies, one of their two Social Security checks goes away and the survivor gets the larger of the two benefits. If your husband’s check had been larger than yours, that amount would become your survivor benefit. If your benefit was the larger of the two, you would continue getting that amount.

Many people don’t consider the impact their claiming decisions will have on their surviving spouse, which is unfortunate since the survivor could live years or even decades on this reduced income. Couples often can maximize their benefits and lessen the severity of this drop in income by making sure the higher earner delays their Social Security application as long as possible, ideally until it maxes out at age 70.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at

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