Death, while painful for most of us to contemplate, is nonetheless a fact of life for which we all need to prepare.
The death of a spouse brings its unique kind of grief, along with a list of tasks that must be accomplished; often within a specified time frame. One of the first things that a surviving spouse must do as soon as possible after their husband or wife passes applies for Social Security survivor’s benefits. It is important to note that the deceased spouse must have worked long enough to qualify for benefits. This determination is based on a specific formula that is somewhat complex.
However, in general, the survivors’ benefit amount is higher when the deceased spouse earned more and paid more into the system. The final amount is a percentage of the deceased’s basic Social Security benefit and depends on the survivor’s age and the type of benefit for which they are eligible.
The survivors’ benefits application cannot be made online, so it’s important that you understand the application procedure before the death of your loved one. As soon as practical after the passing of your spouse, you will need to contact Social Security (1-800-772-1213) to schedule an appointment. Do not put this off as it could have negative financial consequences for you and your family and cause you added stress and frustration.
If you have planned the funeral (highly recommended), your funeral director will likely report the spouse’s death to Social Security for you. If not, you will need to provide the director with the deceased’s Social Security number and instruct them to make the report.
If you elect to apply on your own, you must advise Social Security as soon as possible of the death so that you and other surviving family members will get the benefits to which you are entitled. If at the time of passing, you and your spouse lived together, Social Security will issue a one-time payment of $255. This isn’t much, I realize, but it can help with some of the smaller expenses associated with the funeral.
In some cases, surviving spouses may be entitled to receive this one-time payment even if they lived apart at the time of death. If there is not a surviving spouse, the benefits on the deceased’s record may go to an eligible child. Certain family members are also eligible to receive monthly payments, provided the deceased worked the required amount of time specified by Social Security guidelines. Social Security will make this determination after they receive notification of death.
If you are the widower or widow of someone determined to have worked long enough under Social Security rules, you can receive full benefits at the full retirement age or, you may elect to receive reduced benefits starting at age 60. If the surviving spouse is disabled and that disability began within seven years of the deceased worker’s death, you may be able to get survivor’s benefits as early as age 50.
You may get benefits at any age provided you have not remarried and are taking care of the deceased’s child under age 16, or if that child is disabled and receives benefits on the deceased’s record.
There are a few more instances when survivors are eligible for benefits. Bear in mind that the Social Security Administration makes the ultimate determination. Accurate and complete records will significantly assist you in expediting that decision. You should have those records, including the Social Security numbers of all survivors, in a separate, secure file that you can quickly access.
Here are some other things to keep in mind:
• An unmarried child under the age of 18 (or 19 if a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school) may be eligible to receive survivor’s benefits.
• A disabled child 18 or older may also receive benefits provided their disability began before age 22.
• The deceased’s parents who are 62 or older and who received half or more of their support from the deceased may be eligible for benefits.
• In some cases, a divorced spouse may be entitled to survivor’s benefits.
• If your spouse was already receiving benefits before his or her death, you must RETURN any benefits you receive the month of death or in later months. For example, if your spouse passed in September, you must return the benefit you receive in October. In cases of auto deposits, you need to notify your bank and ask them to return any funds received after the death. DO NOT cash any checks received for the month the person dies or the following month.
• If a surviving spouse remarries after age 60, that remarriage will not affect eligibility.
• If you, as an eligible survivor are already receiving Social Security benefits, you may only apply for the deceased’s benefits if they are HIGHER than what you currently receive.
• If you, as a surviving spouse, are already receiving social security on the spouse’s record, these benefits will automatically convert to survivor’s benefits once Social Security receives the death report.
• Maximum family benefits will apply.
There are several other situations and special circumstances associated with Social Security survivor’s benefits. I recommend that you spend some time on the Social Security website before your spouse’s death so that you will be able to grasp some of the more complicated aspects of these benefits. You may also want to enlist the help of a financial professional who is well-versed in the many nuances of Social Security planning.
As with most things in life, planning will do a great deal to alleviate some of the stress that is inevitable when your spouse dies. With the help of a trusted and knowledgeable advisor, you can include the potential of survivor’s benefits in your financial plan and ensure those benefits will be available to you when you need them the most.