Lump-sum death benefit and the survivors benefit
When the first spouse dies, Social Security's lump-sum benefit pays $255 to the surviving spouse. A surviving child may also receive this benefit.
The survivors benefit ensures that the surviving spouse is eligible for monthly Social Security benefits based on the earnings of the deceased spouse beginning as early as age 60, if the marriage lasted at least nine months.
Typically, says Henry, one partner in a marriage has much higher lifetime earnings than the other, and therefore a higher monthly Social Security check. If the higher wage-earner passes away, the survivor will then start getting checks for that higher amount.
A widow or widower older than 60 who was married for more than 10 years, and who has remarried, has the option to continue to collect survivors benefits or to collect based on the new spouse's earnings -- raising the question again, Rae points out, of how the duration of gay marriages will be calculated.