Q: My husband is seriously ill. I know that if he dies, I'll need to notify Social Security so that his retirement benefits will stop. But what can I expect in the way of help for me and the rest of the family from Social Security?
A: The first thing to know is that in many ways, Social Security resembles a giant insurance policy that helps protect the income of families of the nation's workers when death strikes. If an elderly woman loses her spouse, she can receive survivor benefits, which may keep her from falling into poverty. Likewise, if a young worker with young children dies in an accident, Social Security can pay monthly benefits to the surviving family members for years to come. All of these benefits are "earned" in the sense that they are based on the work record of the person who died.
Q: So which family members may be eligible for survivor benefits?
A: Quite a few, actually. The list includes:
- a widow or widower who is 60 or older (or at least 50 years old and with a disability that started before the deceased's death or within seven years after.)
- a widow or widower of any age who has not remarried and is caring for the deceased's child who is under 16 or disabled and receiving benefits on deceased's record.
- a child of the deceased who is under 18, or under 19 if a full-time student at an elementary or secondary school.
- a child who is 18 or older with a disability that began before 22
Benefits may also be payable to:
- a surviving divorced spouse providing the marriage lasted at least 10 years.
- a stepchild, grandchild, stepgrandchild or adopted child
- the parents of the person who died, if they are 62 or older and were dependent on the deceased for at least half their support
- A surviving divorced widow or widower, providing the marriage lasted for at least 10 years. Note: If you remarry after you reach 60 (50 if disabled), the remarriage will not affect your eligibility for a survivor benefit.
See also: Divorce and Social Security benefits
Q: Is there a limit to how much money Social Security will pay to multiple survivors?
A: Yes. It's called the family maximum benefit, and it puts a ceiling on the total number of dollars that members of a single family can receive each month. The rules are complicated, but generally speaking, the limit is equal to 150 to 180 percent of the full benefit of the deceased worker. If the benefits due to family members exceed this limit, payments will be reduced proportionately.
Q: I've heard that Social Security also pays a one-time death benefit. Is that true?
A: Yes. The lump sum is $255, and it can be paid to a surviving spouse who was living with the deceased at the time of death. If living apart, the surviving spouse would have had to have received certain Social Security benefits on the work record of the deceased. If there is no surviving spouse, the payment can go to a child who is eligible for benefits on the work record of the deceased during the month of death.
Q: So how do I notify Social Security if my spouse passes away?
A: The easiest way is to call 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. Reports of death must be made by phone or in person at a Social Security office; you can't report a death online. Many funeral homes are willing to notify Social Security of a death. However, the home will need the deceased's Social Security number.
Q: What's the best way to apply for survivor benefits?
A: As with reporting a death, call Social Security or go to an office. You can't apply online. If you're not already getting other Social Security benefits, you may be asked to provide documents that prove your identity and relation to the deceased.
Q: When someone dies, can we keep the most recent Social Security payment that was received?
A: It depends. The basic rule is that no benefits are paid for the month in which a person dies. That means, for example, if a person dies anytime in the month of November, a payment received in December (which is for November) must be returned. But a benefit received in November need not be returned, because it was for October. If your husband's benefits were going to his bank by direct deposit, you should also report his death to the bank so that it can return any improper payments.
Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the Social Security Mailbox archive. If you don't find your answer there, send an email to the Social Security Mailbox.