Social Security is a key source of financial security to widowed spouses in old age. About 7.5 million individuals age 60 and older receive benefits based, at least in part, on a deceased spouse's work record. These beneficiaries include 3.7 million individuals who are entitled only as widowed spouses, and another 3.8 million who are entitled to benefits based on their own work records, but get higher benefits as widows or widowers. These surviving spouse beneficiaries are overwhelmingly women.
The benefits are important to women because wives tend to earn less than their husbands and they typically outlive their husbands – both because women live longer than men, on average, and because wives tend to be a few years younger than their husbands. When a retired worker dies, the surviving spouse gets an amount equal to the worker's full retirement benefit.
Example: John Smith has a $1,200-a-month retirement benefit. His wife Jane gets $600 as a 50 percent spousal benefit. Total family income from Social Security is $1,800 a month. When John dies, Jane will get $1,200 a month as her survivor benefit, two-thirds of the benefit the Smiths had received as a couple. Total income for Jane as a widow is $1,200 a month.
Example: Bill and Emily Jones each get benefits based on their individual earnings. Each of them is entitled to $1,200 a month, and total family income is $2,400 a month. When one of them dies, the widowed spouse continues to receive $1,200 a month. The widowed spouse cannot get both benefits. Therefore total monthly family income is reduced to $1,200 at widowhood, or 50 percent of their former income as a couple.
Example: Joe Sanchez receives $1,200 a month and his wife Consuela earned enough on her own to get an $800 monthly check. Total family income is $2,000 a month. When Joe dies, Consuela will receive her retirement check plus $400 a month as a widow. Her total benefit will be as much as Joe had been receiving, $1,200 a month, or 60 percent of their former income as a couple.
For more information on Social Security and survivor benefits, see: