Social Security household benefits often cut when a spouse dies

Christine: I have searched the Internet and found no answer to my dad’s problem. Mom just died, at 74. She earned $1,400 a month in Social Security. Dad is 74 and gets $1,200 a month. This was their only income and it barely covered their expenses. They have no savings.

Now Social Security has told my dad that he will get only $1,400 a month and that his benefit would stop! That is just not enough to live on. I can’t believe our government does this to the elderly! Is there something more we need to know? Is there a way to get both? Now, besides losing his wife of 50 years, he will be in debt for the first time. Is there anything he can do?

Phil Moeller: Sadly, these are the rules. When one spouse dies, the lower Social Security payment goes away. I can cite you all sorts of reasons why this is the case, and even why it is “fair,” but they won’t alter the unpleasant surprise faced by your dad and many other surviving spouses.

When Social Security was created in 1935, very few women were in the workforce. The man’s benefit was the dominant source of retirement income, so family benefits did not drop off sharply when one spouse died. With the percentage of women in the labor force now about equal to men, this is no longer the case. And with the first baby boomers now age 75, the volume of these very difficult survivor situations will be increasing sharply.

Among the many, many proposals to change Social Security is one that would provide surviving spouses higher benefits – say 75 percent of what both spouses had been receiving. This would help Christine’s dad a great deal but, of course, creating such a benefit also would increase Social Security spending.

Assuming that Democrats and Republicans might someday be willing to sit down together and consider badly needed Social Security reforms, they need to devise ways to pay for them. Social Security is projected to run short of funds by 2034, and perhaps sooner, and would be able then to pay less than 80 percent of the benefits that people have been promised.

Historically, Social Security has always been a self-supported benefit that was entirely funded by payroll taxes. This has been one of its greatest strengths, allowing it independence from the kinds of government logjams that regularly tie other programs in knots.

To maintain this independence, the program will have to get congressional approval for a combination of higher payroll taxes from some or all wage earnings, some program cuts, and also some increases in benefits, such as raising payments to surviving spouses. Getting Congress to agree on such a package is not feasible now, and fashioning a solution will only get harder.