From age 60 – or age 50 for people with disabilities – a survivor can apply for a deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits (if they are higher than the survivor’s, or if the survivor does not have the work history to qualify ) or apply for them temporarily and defer claiming their own benefits (which may increase their benefits until they reach full retirement age or beyond).
“The surviving spouses can get a lot more income,” said Trinh Phan, senior staff attorney at Justice in Aging. The average survivor benefit, the Social Security Administration reports, is $1,467 per month.
Ms. Thornton, for example, had always worked for nonprofits—first a food co-op, then a theater—and never earned as much as Ms. Brown, a staffer and instructor at The Evergreen State College.
On her own, Mrs. Thornton had to file for Social Security early, at age 62, and turned to pet sitters to supplement her $953 per month allowance. She lived frugally and did not often visit relatives. “I couldn’t just buy a plane ticket and fly to California,” she said. “I had to postpone maintenance on my house for years.”
However, when Social Security started paying her survivor benefits, her monthly income nearly doubled to $1,849. And she received a lump sum of $72,000, retroactive to the years the agency rejected her application.
An unknown and perhaps unknowable number of people have never been able to marry their deceased same-sex partner. But a second group is also eligible for the survivor benefit: same-sex couples who were married for less than nine months, the legal threshold for the survivor benefit, before one of the spouses died.
Anthony Gonzalez and his partner, Mark Johnson, lived together in Albuquerque, NM, for nearly 16 years, assuming they would never be able to marry in their state.