Comparing Social Security survivor vs. ex-spousal benefits

Sarah – Calif.: I’m 69. I started receiving Social Security benefits at age 66 under my husband’s work history, because I worked very little outside the home. My husband died two months ago. I was previously married for 15 years to my first husband. Since my first husband earned a lot more, can I now collect Social Security benefits under his work history instead?

Phil Moeller: Yes. You are eligible for these benefits because you are now single following the death of your second husband. You can’t collect two benefits at the same time, of course, but only the larger of the two — either a survivor benefit from your second husband or a survivor or ex-spousal benefit from your first husband. Your note did not say whether your first husband was still alive.

If he is, even though he earned more money, the spousal benefit is much less generous than the survivor benefit. The spousal benefit at most will be half of what your ex-husband was entitled to receive at his full retirement age. The survivor benefit is all of what your late husband was receiving when he died, or would have been entitled to receive if he died before claiming his benefits.

Social Security should be able to help you with this matter. You will need details on both husbands, including marriage, divorce, and death records.