Social Security Survivor Benefits Explained

Although best known for its monthly payments to retirees, Social Security actually pays several different types of benefits, as its official name, Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) implies. If you are eligible to collect Social Security benefits upon retirement, your spouse or dependents may be eligible for survivor benefits in the event of your death. But like many federal programs, the rules can be complicated.

Key takeaways

  • If you have qualified to collect Social Security when you retire, your family members may be eligible for survivor benefits after your death.
  • Survivor benefits are available to widowers and widowers, minor children, disabled older children, and dependent parents of the deceased.
  • Sometimes stepchildren, grandchildren, grandchildren, or adopted children can also receive benefits.
  • Benefit amounts are based on the survivor’s relationship to the deceased and other factors.

Who qualifies for Social Security survivor benefits?

Monthly survivor benefits are available to certain family members, including:

  • A widower aged 60 or over (50 or over if disabled) who has not remarried
  • A widower of any age who is caring for the deceased’s child (or children) under 16 or disabled
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is under 18 years old (or up to 19 years old if he is a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school), or 18 years or older with a disability that began before age 22
  • A stepchild, grandchild, foster grandchild, or foster child, under certain circumstances
  • Parents, age 62 or older, who depended on the deceased for at least half of their income and whose own Social Security benefit would not be greater than that of the deceased children
  • A divorced surviving spouse, if you meet other eligibility requirements

A one-time death benefit payment of $ 255 may be paid to your surviving spouse if they were living with you or were living separately and your spouse was receiving certain Social Security benefits on your record. In cases where there is no surviving spouse, the one-time payment can be made to a child who is eligible for benefits on the deceased’s record in the month of death.

How are Social Security survivor benefits calculated?

First, you have to work a certain number of years and accumulate the necessary amount of “credits” each year for your loved ones to be eligible for benefits, which you must do to be eligible yourself. By 2021, you will receive one credit for every $ 1,470 you earn, up to $ 5,880, for a total of four credits per year. In 2022, it will increase for every $ 1,510 you earn, up to $ 6,040.

The exact amount of credits you need to make your family members eligible for survivor benefits depends on your age when you die. The younger you are, the fewer credits you will need, but the maximum you will need is 40 credits. For most people, it is necessary to work and pay Social Security taxes for at least 10 years to accumulate the required amount.

However, if your death leaves a spouse with dependent children, a special provision allows benefits to be paid to them if you have earned six credits (which takes about 1.5 years) or more within the three calendar years prior to your death. .

As with regular retirement benefits, the amount of survivor benefits your family would receive is based on your average lifetime income. The more he earned, the greater the profit, up to a certain maximum.

Benefit amounts are based on how much the deceased would have earned at full retirement age if they were still alive. But if you have started collecting benefits before your full or “normal” retirement age, resulting in a reduced payment, any benefits paid to your surviving family members will be based on that reduced amount. Also, the age at which your spouse or dependents begin to collect will affect your benefit amount.

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If you begin collecting Social Security benefits before reaching normal retirement age, not only will you receive a reduced benefit, but your surviving spouse will receive it after your death.

How big are the benefits?

Benefits also vary based on the survivor’s relationship to the deceased and the age at which benefits begin to be received.

Benefits for spouses

A widower or widower who has reached full retirement age can receive 100% of the death benefit. A widow or widower between the ages of 60 and full retirement age can receive between 71.5% and 99% of that benefit. A disabled widow or widower, aged 50 to 59, can receive 71.5%. A widow or widower of any age caring for a child under the age of 16 can receive 75%. Divorced spouses, if they qualify, can receive the same percentages as widows and widowers.

Benefits for children and others

Children under the age of 18 (or 19, if they are still attending elementary or secondary school) and disabled dependent children can receive 75% of the deceased’s benefit. A surviving dependent parent can receive 82.5% of the benefit; If two dependent parents survive, they are eligible to collect 75% each.

How can surviving spouses maximize their benefits?

As mentioned above, surviving spouses (except those with disabilities or who are caring for a qualifying child) are eligible for a reduced benefit starting at age 60. Still, they must wait until their full retirement age to collect the maximum 100% benefit.

If you are already receiving retirement benefits

For those who already receive retirement benefits, they can only claim benefits as a widower or widower if the current retirement benefit they receive is less than the survivor benefit. In other words, they will pay you the greater of the two benefits. However, both benefits cannot be combined and taken at the same time.

If you have not yet applied for retirement benefits

Spouses who are eligible for both the survivor benefit and the retirement benefit based on their own employment history can maximize their total benefits by taking them in the most advantageous order. The Social Security Administration explains how this works:

If you are also eligible for retirement benefits (but haven’t applied for them yet), you have an additional option. You can apply for retirement or survivors benefits now and switch to the other (higher) benefit at a later date.

The correct order for you will depend on the size of each profit. If both payments are currently roughly the same, it may be better to take the 60-year survivor benefit. It will be reduced because you are taking it before, but you can collect that benefit from 60 to 70 years old, the retirement benefit continues to grow. Then you can collect your own benefit starting at age 70, when you reach the maximum.

Conversely, if your own benefit is small compared to your survivor benefit (and it will be even at age 70), you could take your own (reduced) benefit at age 62, which is the earliest age you are. eligible. Then, at age 66, you could switch to the survivor benefit. However, the survivor’s benefit would be reduced as it was taken before or before full retirement age.

Contact the Social Security Administration to discuss which benefit to take first before applying for either. Ideally, you want to make sure you choose the option that best suits your financial circumstances by considering all variables, which could include your age, the age of your deceased spouse, and your eligible benefits, including both survivor and your own retirement. Benefits.

Eligible for benefits in the last 12 months

There is an exception for those who recently applied for retirement benefits. If you became entitled to retirement benefits less than 12 months ago, you may be allowed to withdraw your retirement application and apply for survivor benefits only. Then you can reapply for your retirement benefits later, when the benefits are a larger amount.

Watch out for the “blackout period”

As mentioned above, a widow or widower generally does not qualify for her own benefits until age 60. However, that person (regardless of age) can collect payments as a caregiver for the deceased’s children until they turn 16.

The children themselves qualify for benefits (paid to the surviving parent) until they turn 18 (or 19 if they are still in school). But between the child’s 18th birthday (when his survivor benefits stop) and the spouse’s 60th birthday (when his benefits resume), no one in the family is eligible to collect. This is what is known as the blackout period.

For example: a woman becomes a widow at age 30 with a two-year-old son. As her son’s caregiver, she has the right to collect Social Security benefits for 14 years, until she turns 16.birthday. After that, your son continues to receive his survivor benefits for two more years, until he is 18 years old. Her mother will be 48 years old at the time, leaving the family ineligible for any payments until widow’s benefits are available when she is 60 years old. In this case, the Social Security blocking period lasts 12 years.

One possible solution is for families to ensure they have adequate life insurance to support the surviving spouse during any blackout period. Take, for example, a couple, both 31 years old, who recently had a child. If either parent dies, the surviving spouse is eligible for benefits until they are 47 years old (when the child is 16). If you both purchase 30-year term life insurance policies and stay current on your premiums, you will be guaranteed coverage until age 61, one year after Social Security eligibility is restored, in the event that one of them dies.

If three or more family members receive survivor benefits, they may be subject to Social Security rules that limit the maximum family benefit.

How do I apply for survivor benefits?

Because individual circumstances can vary widely, it is not possible to apply for survivors benefits online. However, you can apply by phone or by appointment at your local Social Security office. Current requirements and contact information are always available on the Social Security Administration website.

Applying for survivor benefits may require you to submit specific documents, such as a death certificate, marriage certificate, proof of citizenship, or a divorce decree, so rounding these up beforehand will help speed up the process.

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Mark Holland

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