Retirement: How Social Security provides for survivors

Some people argue that you should claim benefits as soon as possible because you could wind up receiving less than you're entitled to. But that's not necessarily true.

Megan Hess, a physician in Altoona, Pa., died last summer at age 55, of metastatic breast cancer. That was seven years before she could apply for retirement benefits. For most of her career, Hess earned a good salary and paid the maximum Social Security tax on her earnings. Was it all for naught? Far from it.

Her husband, Christian, a stay-at-home dad, is now receiving $2,344 a month in survivor benefits based on Megan's earnings record -- a clear reminder that Social Security is an insurance plan as well as a...