Married couples don’t know which of them will die first. Not a pleasant thought to discuss but a very important topic none the less.  What you need to know is when the first spouse dies, the remaining spouse’s social security benefits may be radically changed, and not always for the better.

Take the example of Nancy and Jim – an average middle income couple who organized their affairs and lifestyle to retire on their planned Social Security benefits. They both had successful careers. Jim was 69 years old, retired and eligible to receive a monthly retirement check from the Social Security Administration (SSA) in the amount of $1,956. Nancy was 66 years old, retired as well, and eligible to receive a monthly check from SSA in the amount of $1,700. They had a comfortable combined monthly SSA retirement income of $3,656.

Jim took ill and died suddenly. Shortly thereafter, Nancy was informed by the Social Security Association that the SSA rules do not allow Nancy to continue receiving two retirement checks!  SSA will now only pay one retirement check to Nancy, whichever is the higher of what she receives or what Jim received prior to his death. Since Jim’s retirement benefit was higher than Nancy’s, SSA will now pay Nancy the monthly benefit previously paid to Jim. Nancy, the surviving spouse, will find the family social security retirement benefits reduced from $3,656 a month to $1,956 a month – a 46% reduction in her standard of living.

Now consider the case of John – a 67 year old retired man married to Mary. Mary was 50 years old and also retired but she did not meet the age requirements for SSA eligibility.  John and Mary lived comfortably on John’s monthly $1,850 social security retirement check. When John died, Mary had not reached her 62nd birthday and did not qualify for SSA benefits. Therefore, according to SSA rules, Mary did not have an existing right to John’s retirement check. Mary’s retirement income went from $1,850 to zero.

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