Pensions are also known as "defined benefit" plans because the amount a worker gets in retirement is fixed. That separates pensions from 401(k)s and similar investment accounts, in which retirement income hinges on how well investments perform. If your spouse qualified for a pension, you may be able to claim some or all of the benefit when he dies.
Types of Benefits
Pension benefits come in all shapes and sizes. Your claim on your spouse's benefits may depend on just what benefits his company offered and what he signed up for. Some pensions, for example, pay a regular benefit as long as the worker lives, but no longer. In that case, you're out of luck. If your spouse signed up for a pension option that includes survivor benefits, then you're entitled to collect them after he dies.
Survivor benefits usually come with a trade-off. Your spouse can sign up for a pension plan that gives you 100 percent of his benefits. He may also choose 75 percent, 50 percent or something smaller. This isn't him being mean -- the more survivor benefits you're entitled to, the smaller the monthly payment becomes. The options are the maximum benefit for a shorter time or a lesser benefit for a longer period.
If your spouse is a veteran, you may qualify for a survivor's pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs. This only applies if your spouse met the VA requirements -- honorably discharged, for instance -- and if your income falls below a set level. If your spouse worked for the federal government, you and any minor children you have may qualify for pension benefits. There are a host of variables, including when your spouse died and how long you've been married.
Once your spouse retires, his pension options can't be changed. You both should decide ahead of time whether survivor benefits are the way to go. Depending on your finances, it may work out better if she gets the maximum personal benefit and invests it for your future, rather than taking a reduced benefit in return for guaranteeing you a pension after she passes on. Weigh the decision in the context of your overall financial planning.