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Ask an Advisor: I Lost My Wife to COVID in 2021. Can I Collect Her Social Security Benefits? I’m 70 and Raising Our Grandson


I lost my wife to COVID-19 on Feb. 3, 2021. She worked several years at the same company that I’m still employed at now. I tried to talk to my local Social Security office right after her death, but they were no help. Can I apply for any of the Social Security benefits that she’s paid into? I’m 70 and raising a grandson. I’m ready to retire, but my Social Security income isn’t enough by itself and my 401(k) is leaking out pretty fast.

– Max

I’m sorry for the loss of your wife, Max. The short answer to your questions is yes, you are likely eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. However, you cannot add your survivor benefit to your personal Social Security benefit. You have to choose between the two, which means that it may not provide the financial relief that you’re seeking. On the plus side, your grandson may be eligible for survivor benefits as well, if he meets certain conditions. Here’s what you need to know.

Do you have additional questions about Social Security? Consider speaking with a financial advisor today.

Your Social Security Survivor Benefits

When you pay into Social Security, you’re not only accumulating benefits for yourself. In fact, you’re also accumulating benefits that can be paid to your survivors, similar to how life insurance works.

Several variables determine who can claim those benefits and how much they can receive. In your case, it should be fairly straightforward.

In general, a surviving spouse who’s reached full retirement age is eligible to receive 100% of their spouse’s Social Security benefit. In other words, you can receive the same monthly benefit that your spouse would have received if she had retired and claimed Social Security for herself. Since you are already past full retirement age, you should qualify.

You may also be eligible for a one-time payment of $255, which is typically paid to a surviving spouse who was living with the deceased.

You cannot claim this benefit online, so you would need to either call the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213 or visit a local field office. You can find an office near you using the SSA’s locator tool.

Whether you call or go to an office, there are several documents and other information that you will need to provide, including proof of death, a marriage certificate, W2s or self-employment tax returns, among other forms. You can find a full list of what you’ll need here. (And if you need help managing your retirement income, including survivor benefits, speak with a financial advisor.)

Your Retirement Benefit vs. Survivor Benefit

A recent widower has a moment of reflection as he looks out a window.

Unfortunately, you cannot collect both your personal Social Security benefit and survivor benefit. You have to choose one or the other. For some people, it can make sense to choose one now, let the other benefit grow, and then switch down the line once that growth has been maximized.

For example, a surviving spouse might choose to receive the survivor benefit until age 70 and then switch to their retirement benefit. This would allow their retirement benefit to accumulate the maximum number of delayed credits.

In your case, since you’re already 70, there likely isn’t any reason to do that. Your personal retirement benefit is already maximized, so you simply need to compare this payment to your survivor benefit and choose whichever is greater.

I realize that this may not help your situation. If your personal benefit is greater, you can’t add your survivor benefit on top of it. However, if your survivor benefit is more, you can at least increase your monthly income by a little bit. (If you need help building your Social Security plan, consider speak with a financial advisor.)

Social Security Survivor Benefits for Grandchildren

Your grandson may be eligible for a survivor benefit as well, which could significantly help your situation. In general, grandchildren must meet the following criteria to be eligible for benefits:

  • They must be legally adopted by their grandparent, or their biological parents must be disabled or deceased
  • They must have started living with the grandparent before age 18
  • They must have been receiving at least one-half of their financial support from the grandparent in the year before death
  • Their biological parents can’t regularly contribute to their support
  • If the grandparents are already collecting Social Security benefits, the grandchild must be adopted before he or she is eligible to collect as well

If he meets those criteria, he may be eligible to receive up to 75% of your wife’s Social Security benefit.

Bottom Line

A widower compares his personal Social Security benefit with his survivor benefit to determine which one he should collect.

Between you and your grandson, you should be eligible to receive either one or two Social Security benefits. You should be eligible to choose between the higher of your personal Social Security benefit and the survivor benefit you can collect based on your wife’s earnings. If your grandson meets the criteria above, he may be eligible to receive a survivor benefit equal to 75% of your wife’s benefit. I hope that helps Max. I know this is a challenging situation and I wish you all the best.

Social Security Tips

  • A financial advisor can help you plan for Social Security. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • While you’re eligible to start collecting Social Security at age 62, doing so will reduce your benefit by as much as 30%. On the flip side, waiting until age 70 will mean your benefit will be worth as much as 32% more than it would be had you collected at your full retirement age (FRA). SmartAsset’s Social Security calculator can help you estimate how much you retirement benefits will be based on your earnings and when you plan to collect.

Matt Becker, CFP®, is a SmartAsset financial planning columnist and answers reader questions on personal finance and tax topics. Got a question you’d like answered? Email and your question may be answered in a future column.

Please note that Matt is not a participant in the SmartAdvisor Match platform, and he has been compensated for this article.

Photo credit: ©, © Seisa