In most cases, the Social Security benefits of a deceased spouse do pass to the surviving spouse, but there are some specific considerations to keep in mind when it comes to who is entitled to which benefits and how to apply for them.
People are often unaware that they may be able to collect Social Security benefits from their deceased spouse — called survivors benefits — but it’s important to investigate the options as part of your financial planning.
In addition to the surviving spouse, other family members — including certain children/dependents and parents of the deceased — may also be eligible. But for the purposes of this article, we will focus on spousal benefits.
The first consideration is whether the spouse who has passed has paid into Social Security long enough.
In general, a person needs 40 “social security credits” (roughly equivalent to 10 years of work) to qualify for benefits, but some survivors can get benefits if the worker has credit for 1 and 1/2 years of work (6 credits) in the 3 years just before their death. However, it’s best to speak to a Social Security Administration (SSA) claims representative about the options as each person’s situation is different.
The second set of considerations relate to the survivor’s age and other circumstances.
As a surviving spouse, you may begin collecting survivors benefits at the following ages:
- Widow or widower aged 60 or older
- Widow or widower aged 50 or older if disabled
- Widow or widower of any age if caring for the deceased’s child, and that child is either under the age of 16 or is disabled
What percentage of your spouse’s benefit you receive depends on a variety of factors, including:
- How old you are when you begin to draw the benefits
- How much money you earn
- How much (if any) Social Security you receive from your own account
In most cases, each spousal survivor also receives a one-time, lump sum “death benefit” payment of $255 at the time of a spouse’s passing. This payment is separate from and in addition to the ongoing survivors benefits.
When it comes to the total benefit amount you can receive, the bottom line is that you will not receive double benefits. Instead, you will — at best — receive an amount that is equal to the higher of the two benefits (yours and your spouse’s).
So, for example, say John draws $1,400 in Social Security per month, and his wife Mary draws $800. If John dies, Mary will receive her $800 plus an additional $600 to make her total benefit equal to the higher amount John was receiving ($1,400).
If, on the other hand, Mary draws $1,400 per month and John draws $800, upon his death Mary will continue to receive only her own benefit of $1,400, since it was already the higher of the two payments.
Survivor Benefits are not just for current spouses.
In some cases, divorced spouses may also be eligible for survivors benefits if:
- The ex-spouse has not remarried before the age of 60, and
- The marriage lasted at least ten years, or
- The ex-spouse is caring for the deceased’s child, and that child is either under the age of 16 or is disabled
In such cases, the surviving ex-spouse may be eligible to receive the same amount of benefits as the surviving spouse, but such benefits will have no effect on the amount available to the surviving spouse and/or other eligible family members.
You cannot report a death or apply for survivors benefits online. Typically, you can provide the funeral home with the deceased’s Social Security number, and ask them to make the report on your behalf.
Alternatively, you can both report a death and apply for benefits by calling a Social Security representative between 8am and 7pm Monday through Friday at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).
You can also locate the contact information for your local Social Security Office using the SSA’s Office Locator.
Before you reach out to the Social Security representative, you can review the documents you may need to complete your application as well as a list of questions the representative may ask you during the application process. The SSA provides informational pages for a variety of scenarios:
- Widows/Widowers or Surviving Divorced Spouse’s Benefits
- Child’s Benefits
- Mother’s or Father’s Benefits (You must have a child under age 16 or disabled in your care.)
- Lump-Sum Death Payment
- Parent’s Benefits (You must have been dependent on your child at the time of his or her death.)
Being well-informed will help ensure you receive the maximum benefits owed to you.
If you have any questions about survivor benefits or other aspects of your estate planning, don’t hesitate to give us a call at 860-236-7673. We’re always happy to help.