Dear Dr. Don,
My husband died this year after 20 years of marriage. He was previously married for more than 20 years to his first spouse. Why won’t Social Security let me draw a portion of his Social Security? It is my understanding that the first spouse can draw. We are both older than 65 and were drawing Social Security at the time of his death. My monthly Social Security benefit exceeded his. The Social Security representative tells me that because my benefit is higher, I am unable to draw survivors benefits, but this leaves me with all the bills and cuts my income from Social Security almost in half. This is very unfair.

— Theresa Troubled

Dear Theresa,
First, I understand this is a difficult time. Please allow me to send my condolences. Financial pressures can make an already difficult time even more challenging.

Here are some of the facts regarding a situation like yours: The monthly benefit paid to an ex-spouse (a surviving divorced spouse) does not affect the benefit rates for other survivors who are receiving a benefit on the worker’s record. You’re struggling with the reduction in the loss of household income because your husband’s Social Security benefit doesn’t continue past his death.

Comparing benefits from work records

You are entitled to survivors benefits based on his work record, but it only would make sense to take them if they exceed the benefits you’re receiving based on your own work record. Since the amount is less, there’s no advantage to receiving survivors benefits.

Widows don’t get two monthly Social Security checks. They get either a payment based on their own work record or survivors benefits based on their spouse’s work record.

Should you switch benefits?

You didn’t provide the details on your ages, just saying that you’re both older than 65. Survivors who qualify for benefits based on their own work record have some options if they aren’t at their full retirement age. As Social Security points out on its website: “In many cases, a widow or widower can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then, at full retirement age, switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate.”

Time to consult with professionals?

If you’re uncertain about whether you’re receiving the maximum benefit you’re entitled to, you could double-check with your Social Security representative. If you’re having trouble making ends meet after the death of your spouse, you need to rework your household finances. Bringing in a fee-only financial planner could help you work on your income and expenses.

Thanks to Edward Lafferty, a public affairs specialist at the Social Security Administration, for helping me with this reply.

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