August 2021 Question of the Month

By Admin Prepare

August 5, 2021

“Hello – I have a Social Security Question. Can you explain the difference between spousal benefits and survivor benefits? Which is best and is there a way to get both? Thank you.”

Social Security is a very popular topic these days – especially with changes expected to save the system. The good news is that most people will receive benefits from the Social Security system. The bad news is the Social Security program is a very complex system. There are a lot of different rules and strategies available as to how and when to elect benefits, and then choices to make on different options. And in order to maximize your benefits and get the most out of the system, you simply have to know and properly understand all the rules and options and how to apply them for your benefit. Some of those options and strategies come into play when one spouse passes away.

When someone dies, it is important to understand the differences between spousal benefits and survivor benefits. Although both words start with an “S,” there is almost no similarity between survivor benefits and spousal benefits. So, let’s look at the differences.

Spousal benefits come into play when one spouse’s work credits are less than half of the other spouse, or where one spouse has no credits at all. This is a big benefit in the Social Security system, as even though one spouse has not worked or worked very little, they are able to collect a Social Security check off of the other spouse.

Spousal benefits can start as early as age 62, and are capped at 50%, which occurs at full retirement age. Let’s take a look at an example. Let’s say John has worked a lot in his lifetime and his full retirement age benefit is $2,400 a month. If he was married, then his wife would qualify for at least $1,200 a month at her full retirement age even if she never worked or paid any payroll taxes during her lifetime.

Now, if the spouse wants to collect a spousal benefit early, that is an option as well, but it will be less than 50% of the working spouse’s benefit. Of course if both working spouse’s have a lot of Social Security credits, then both spouse’s would get their own higher amount if it is more than a spousal benefit.

Now survivor benefits are quite different. When one spouse passes away, the surviving spouse steps into the higher of the two’s benefit. So, the lowest Social Security check will be lost, and the surviving spouse keeps the highest benefit. Survivor benefits can start as early as age 60.

So, for example, lets say that Rick dies at age 67 and was receiving $3,000 a month. His spouse, let’s call her Linda, would get Rick’s benefit and lose her own, or she would keep her own if it was higher than Rick’s. Or, there may be a way for Linda to take Rick’s benefit for a few years while her benefit continues to increase, and then switch to her own benefit once it gets higher than the survival benefit.

It is critically important to educate yourself about Social Security and get as much information as possible on all the different rules, options and strategies. If you want to maximize your benefits, you have to do this. So, how do you do educate yourself? Visit the Prepare Institute website ( to find a retirement course or class near you.

Content is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used as the sole basis for financial decisions, nor should it be construed as advice designed to meet the particular needs of an individual’s situation. You should contact your retirement and tax professional before utilizing any of the information in this article.