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Mark Miller: Remaking Retirement

Social Security FAQ: Survivor Benefits

Contributor Mark Miller explains how survivor benefits differ from spousal benefits, who can receive survivor benefits, and how to apply.

“A haunting fear in the minds of many older men is the possibility, and frequently, the probability, that their widow will be in need after their death. The day of large families and of the farm economy, when aged parents were thereby assured comfort in their declining years, has passed for a large proportion of our population. This change has had particularly devastating effect on the sense of security of the aged women of our country.”

With that observation, an advisory council to President Roosevelt and the Congress in 1938 recommended that a survivor’s benefit be added to the Social Security program, and Congress followed suit the following year. Today’s survivor benefit is a modernized version of the original model--it’s gender-neutral these days, for example.

And, along with spousal benefits--which we examined in my last column--survivor benefits are one of the most important features of Social Security. When a spouse dies, the widow or widower often suffers the financial blow of reduced benefits alongside the emotional trauma of grief: The benefit payments to the deceased spouse stop immediately, which means that total income to the household falls.

But in many cases, the blow is softened by the survivor benefit. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions I hear about this feature of the program.

What is a survivor benefit, and how is it different from a spousal benefit?
The survivor benefit is one of the best illustrations of how Social Security really is “social insurance.” Payroll taxes paid into the program buy income protection for your spouse in case of your death--somewhat like life insurance.

When a spouse dies, the survivor is entitled to receive the greater of his or her own benefit or 100% of the spouse’s benefit, including any cost-of-living increases earned along the way. If the higher-earning spouse delays filing until full retirement age (FRA) or beyond, then the surviving spouse’s lifetime benefits will be increased substantially.

Maximizing the survivor benefit is an especially important consideration for women. Men not only tend to be the higher wage earners but also tend to die at younger ages than women. In many cases, this means that a delayed filing by a man can be a critical way to boost lifetime retirement security for older women--a time of life when overall income can decline sharply.

Who can receive a survivor benefit?
Payments can be made to your widow or widower, and/or to a former spouse. But survivor benefits aren’t limited to spouses. In certain situations, surviving unmarried children also can receive survivor benefits, as can dependent parents. Finally, a one-time, lump-sum payment can be made to your spouse or children. The benefit amounts available in these situations vary.

Can survivor benefits be paid even on my record even if I am not receiving benefits at the time of my death?
Yes. Your survivors can receive full benefits so long as you have earned sufficient credits to provide benefits. The credit definitions are different than the standard qualifying definition for worker benefits. Workers must simply have had 40 quarters of work and paying FICA taxes. In the case of survivors, “fully insured status” is tied to the age of the insured worker’s death. For example, a 40-year-old worker who dies would need 18 credits to be fully insured, and a 50-year-old would need 28 credits.

Partial benefits are available under a status called “currently insured.” The idea here is to at least partially insure younger workers who may die before earning the full 40 credits. It is offered to families of workers who had at least six work credits in the previous 13 calendar quarters, and only to children and spouses who are caring for children.

At what age should I apply for a widow(er)’s survivor benefit?
You can receive full survivor benefits when you reach your own FRA (typically 66). You can receive survivor benefits as young as age 60, but the benefit will be reduced. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, widow(er)s are guaranteed at least 71.5% of their deceased spouse’s full retirement age benefit if they claim the survivor benefit before their full retirement age, and at least 82.5% if they claim the survivor benefit after their full retirement age.

Can I receive a survivor’s benefit from a deceased former spouse?
You might qualify to receive a surviving divorced spouse benefit. Your marriage to the deceased spouse generally must have lasted at least 10 years. Also, you must be currently unmarried, or have remarried after age 60.

Can same-sex married spouses receive survivor benefits?
The Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in 2015 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage. As a result, more same-sex couples will be recognized as married for purposes of determining entitlement to Social Security benefits.

Unfortunately, implementation of the decision has taken time, and some same-sex couples have found themselves in a state of legal limbo. In the meantime, experts advise same-sex couples who think they may be eligible for benefits to file for Social Security. That step could qualify couples to receive retroactive benefits if, and when, the state-of-residence issue is resolved.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which played a key role advancing litigation that led to the Supreme Court decision, has published an in-depth guide to benefits for same-sex couples that addresses many key questions about Social Security. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare offers this resource page. Also visit this page on the Social Security Administration website for more information.

How do I apply for a survivor benefit?
If you were already receiving a spousal benefit, report the spouse’s death to the Social Security Administration, and they will change your payments to survivors benefits. If you were receiving benefits based on your own work, you might be eligible for a higher survivor benefit, depending on your spouse’s work record. You would need to complete an application to switch to survivors benefits, and supply an original or certified copy of the death certificate to the Social Security Administration.

Further Resources
Social Security expert Andy Landis has an excellent, detailed chapter on survivors benefits with clear examples in his book Social Security: The Inside Story (2016 edition).

Also see the Survivors Planner section of the Social Security Administration website.

Mark Miller is a retirement columnist and author of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work, and Living. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.com.