Social Security: When More is Less

Why It Matters:

• For successful planning, married couples need to know about survivor benefits.

• The death of a spouse is a difficult time, you’ll want to avoid the stress of financial shortfalls.

• Even when household income goes down after the loss of a loved one, many fixed expenses remain unchanged.

Chase Squires tkc.profilePicture Written by: Chase Squires | Transamerica
April 06, 2017

5 Min readClock Icon

Everyone knows that when a husband dies, his wife can collect his Social Security benefits. And vice versa.

Ah, but there’s a catch. The surviving spouse doesn’t get two checks. If a wife’s check was less (statistics say it was) she can step up to her late husband’s benefit. But that’s just an increase, it’s not an entirely second check. Same for the husband.

So while the one monthly check gets bigger, the household will actually lose total Social Security income.

The thing to remember is that while household income goes down, many fixed household expenses don’t. The power company, the cable company, the landscaper, property insurance and taxes, and the HOA, none of those costs adjust because there’s one less person in the home.

An example

The National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, offers an example: Imagine a wife receives $600 a month from Social Security while her husband receives $1,200. Together they have a combined income of $1,800 a month. If the husband dies, his widow steps up and collects an amount equal to his $1,200 check but doesn’t claim the original $600 in addition. The household income is slashed by 33%.

It could be worse in homes where both spouses collect the same amount. Same scenario, but both spouses collect $1,200 monthly. When one person dies, there’s no higher level to step up to, so household Social Security income falls 50%, from $2,400 to $1,200.

And that shortfall could last a very long time. Life spans are on the rise, and the Social Security Administration reports about one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past 90.


The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says the death of a loved has a number of real, physical, effects including sleeplessness, loss of appetite, problems concentrating, and trouble making decisions. That's not the time to try to deal with the stress of financial issues.

So it’s important to prepare for adequate household retirement income that will last both partners for a lifetime, along with building a social network outside the home so you have a team of supporters and opportunities to remain socially connected. The Stanford Center on Longevity found being lonely has health risks comparable to smoking.

When it comes to computing retirement income, Social Security is a great benefit. But when preparing for retirement, be sure to consider one spouse may pass years before the other. Will the surviving spouse be able to withstand the financial shock when one Social Security paycheck dries up?

And if you were counting on that Social Security death benefit? It's tiny. So don't. 

Things to Consider:

• Take stock of your household expenses and ask yourself if the loss of one of your Social Security incomes would harm the surviving spouse’s standard of living

• Remember to build a social network so that in the event one spouse passes, the survivor will still be able to remain socially connected.



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