Sad senior woman sitting on couch © Tetra Images/Corbis

Dear Senior Living Adviser,
I am 75 years old, still working and paying Social Security taxes on my income. I started receiving Social Security retirement benefits at my full retirement age, and my wife received benefits based on my work record. If I die before my wife does, will her benefits be increased to a higher level?
— Marc Maintain

© Tetra Images/Corbis

Dear Marc,
Your continuing to work may increase your future benefits. If your earnings this year surpassed one of the years that went into computing your retirement benefit, the Social Security Administration will recalculate your benefit amount. It pays the increase retroactively to January of the year after you earned the money.

Your wife is receiving a spousal benefit based on your work record. If claimed at her full retirement age, it is half of your full retirement age benefit. If she started receiving retirement benefits before her full retirement age, the benefit paid is based on a combination of her work record (if any) and your work record, and is reduced because she received benefits early.

If you should die before your wife, then she will receive a survivors benefit equal to your Social Security retirement benefit at the time of your death, assuming she’s of full retirement age or older. (You didn’t say how old your wife is in your letter.) She would get only the survivors benefit; she would no longer receive the spousal benefit.

From SSA pamphlet on survivor’s benefits:

How much will I receive?
The benefit amount is based on the earnings of the person who died. The more the worker paid into Social Security, the greater your benefits will be.

Social Security uses the deceased worker’s basic benefit amount and calculates what percentage survivors are entitled to. The percentage depends on the survivors’ ages and relationship to the worker. If the person who died was receiving reduced benefits, your survivor’s benefit is based on that amount. Here are the most typical situations:

  • A widow or widower, at full retirement age or older, generally receives 100 percent of the worker’s basic benefit amount. A widow or widower, age 60 or older, but under full retirement age, receives about 71-99 percent of the worker’s basic benefit amount; or
  • A widow or widower, any age, with a child younger than age 16, receives 75 percent of the worker’s benefit amount.
  • Children receive 75 percent of the worker’s benefit amount.

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