What Happens to Retirees When One Spouse Passes Away?

No one likes to think about what would happen to our financial future if our spouse passes away in retirement. In addition to the unthinkable loss, there also could be some potentially significant financial implications, depending on our retirement plan.

Thankfully, there are some steps couples who are nearing retirement can take to help prepare now — and they start by answering some very important questions:

What’s the survivorship benefit of our pension(s)?

First, if one spouse has a defined-benefit pension, it’s crucial to know exactly what the survivor benefit would be if he or she passes away. The pension recipient would’ve either elected to receive a single life benefit, where pension payments end upon death, or joint and survivor benefit where monthly payments are made while the working spouse is alive, but also as long as the surviving spouse lives. 

Retirees and those nearing retirement shouldn’t assume the surviving spouse would receive the same monthly benefit. The surviving spouse could receive anywhere from 50, 75 or 100 percent of the monthly benefit — but only if the benefit designation was joint and survivor. It all depends on how the pension was set up. And if the pension was established as a single life benefit, the pension income will cease upon the death of the spouse who received the pension from their employer.

To find out how the pension benefits were set up for you or your spouse, review the pension contract, or reach out to the HR department of the employer who issued the pension.

How will losing a spouse affect my Social Security benefits?

Social Security benefits are unique to everyone because they vary by retirement age and average lifetime earnings.

By contacting the Social Security Administration, reviewing their Social Security statement or creating a free account at SSA.gov, retirees can determine what their monthly survivorship benefits would be. Benefit totals will vary by the individual, but some general guidelines include:

  • If the surviving spouse has already reached full retirement age (exact age determined by birth year), he or she is eligible to receive 100 percent of the deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits, as long as the survivor isn’t already receiving their own Social Security benefits.
  • Surviving spouses who are already receiving Social Security benefits can only apply for benefits as a widow or widower if the retirement benefit they receive is less than what they would receive as a survivor.
  • If the surviving spouse is at least 60 but hasn’t reached full retirement age, he or she will receive a portion of the deceased spouse’s benefit, ranging between 71-1/2 and 99 percent.
  • There are several other factors that could influence Social Security benefits, including age, disability, dependent children. Learn more about survivorship Social Security benefits by visiting SSA.gov.


    Because Social Security is only meant to replace part of a worker’s salary, any changes in the monthly total could leave the surviving spouse in need of additional retirement income. Many retirees can help prepare for any decrease in Social Security benefits by establishing a retirement income plan that includes guaranteed lifetime income.

    How will the death of a spouse impact my taxes?

    When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse will need to file their income taxes as a single taxpayer the following year. This change can have financial effects, including a decrease in the deductions and exemptions that can be claimed.

    As you are probably aware, no one can accurately predict how long they — or their spouse — will live. However, there are proactive steps to help prepare for these reductions in retirement income now.

    To learn more about how married couples can address these issues, attend the workshop, Women in Retirement: What You Need to Know to Help Take Control.   

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Cindy Collins

Written by Cindy Collins

Forbes Contributor & Retirement Financial Professional

Cindy Collins is a Heyday Retirement contributor with over 30 years of experience in personal financial services.

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