Dear Penny: Will Social Security Tell Me When My Ex-Husband Dies?

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Dear Penny,

My now-ex-husband is 13-plus years older than I am, and he earned more money over the course of his career than I did. We were married for more than 10 years, and I have not remarried.   

I have consulted a couple of Social Security planners. Because my Social Security benefits are greater than 50% of his benefits AND I am likely to outlive him by a decade or two, they recommend I claim Social Security ASAP on my own benefits and collect the much-higher survivor benefits when he passes.

When my ex applied for Social Security, he noted I was his wife at that time, and I have income taxes and a divorce decree as proof of our common-law marriage lasting more than 10 years, so I plan to provide that information to Social Security when I claim next year.  

My questions to you: Since he and I are estranged, will Social Security automatically notify me of his death, so I can switch to the much-higher survivor benefit? If not, how can I possibly know when to make the change?

Do you agree with the two Social Security planners that my best course of action based on our age and income differences is to claim my own benefits early and survivor benefits later?


Dear K.,

I wouldn’t count on Social Security connecting the dots here.

Usually, the funeral home alerts Social Security when someone dies. If someone is already claiming spousal benefits — which are also available to ex-spouses in many cases — Social Security will automatically convert them to survivor benefits. The difference can be substantial. Spousal benefits max out at 50% of the person’s full benefit, whereas survivors can receive up to 100%.

Before I go further, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Planning Social Security benefits around an ex-spouse’s death can feel a bit crass. But this isn’t about rooting for your former husband’s demise. Your goal is to ensure you’re not leaving benefits on the table, which is a must for anyone receiving Social Security.

It’s perfectly allowable to claim an ex-spouse’s Social Security if you were married at least 10 years, you’ve been divorced for two, and you haven’t remarried. The logic is that both spouses contribute economically, even if one spouse doesn’t work or earns significantly less.

That infuriates a lot of people. But it really shouldn’t. When you take benefits on an ex-spouse’s record, it has zero impact on their benefits or the benefits their surviving spouse receives.

Social Security reviews its records annually to see if beneficiaries qualify for higher widow or widower’s benefits. But a lot of people fall through the cracks. Last year, an internal Social Security audit found that about 15,000 people claiming on their own records qualified for higher survivor benefits.

So how do you make sure that you’re not one of them? One option would be to set up a Google Alert for your ex-husband’s name. If an online obituary were to be published, you’d get a notification. This isn’t foolproof, and it may not prove practical if he has a super common name.

Another good solution is to call Social Security every six months. As long as you have your ex’s Social Security number, the agency should be able to determine whether he’s still living. The reason to call twice a year is that Social Security can pay up to six months’ of retroactive benefits, so if you learn that your ex-husband recently died, you’d be able to get back pay for the survivor benefit.

To get survivor benefits, you’ll have to fill out a new application by phone or by visiting your local office. There’s no way to apply for survivor benefits online. Hold onto the documents you have, as you’ll need to provide proof that you were married.

Ultimately, I’m not so concerned about how you’ll find out about your ex-husband’s death. That kind of information tends to spread quickly in this digital age.

What worries me more is your plan to take benefits as soon as you turn 62. The reality is that about half of seniors rely on Social Security for at least 50% of their incomes. By taking your benefit at 62, you’d get about 76% less per month than you would by starting at 70.

Statistically, yes, you’re likely to outlive your ex-husband. But you can’t make such important financial decisions solely on the basis of a life expectancy table. Your ex-husband could live to be 95 or 100. Are you prepared to live off your own lower benefit for two decades or more?

I wouldn’t make any decisions on the assumption that you’ll get a higher survivor benefit at some point. Only start taking Social Security next year if you’re OK with receiving a permanently reduced benefit for the foreseeable future.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].