Social Security: The Ins and Outs of Survivors Benefits

Published In Government Programs

September 6th, 2015

Most people are familiar with the social security benefits that the federal government pays to qualified individuals who reach a designated age. Most people are also aware that the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income Disability programs provide assistance to some people who are unable to work because of a disabling physical or mental condition.

People tend to be less familiar with social security survivors benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) describes survivors benefits as a form of life insurance. Instead of paying a premium to an insurance company, a portion of the payroll tax paid by workers and their employers funds the survivors benefits program.

Who is insured?
Who receives the survivors benefit?
What is full retirement age for a survivor?
How much is the survivors benefit?
Is a survivors benefit available to the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage?
Should you take the survivors benefit?

Who is insured?

It is not easy to understand the confusing rules that determine entitlement to survivors benefits. Benefits are only paid to certain family members of the person who died. They are only paid if the deceased person’s work history qualified that person’s family for the survivors benefits program. The starting point, then, is to ask whether the deceased family member is covered by survivors insurance.

Every person who has worked full time for ten years during their lifetime is insured by Social Security. Family members of a deceased worker may be eligible for survivors benefits even if the worker did not complete ten years of full time employment. Whether a worker who did not work the full ten years is insured depends on his or her age on the date of death. Younger workers do not need to have completed as many years of work as older workers to qualify for survivors insurance. If a family member dies after reaching retirement age, however, eligibility for survivors benefits will likely depend upon whether that person worked a cumulative total of ten years during his or her lifetime.

Who receives the survivors benefit?

Spouses, minor children, and dependent parents may be eligible to receive the survivors benefit after the death of an insured worker. The rules governing eligibility differ depending upon the family member’s relationship to the deceased worker.

  • Surviving spouses are eligible to receive full benefits when they reach full retirement age. The full retirement age for survivors is not necessarily the same as the full retirement age for workers. Later in this article, we explain how survivors can calculate their full retirement age.
  • Surviving spouses can receive reduced benefits beginning at age 60. The amount of the reduction depends upon how many months before full retirement age the benefit payments begin. A surviving spouse who is disabled may be eligible to receive survivor benefits as early as age 50.
  • Unmarried children of the deceased are eligible to receive a survivors benefit if they have not reached the age of 18, or if they are still in secondary school and have not reached the age of 19. Disabled children may be eligible to receive survivors benefits at any age if they became disabled before reaching the age of 22.
  • Dependent parents are eligible for a survivors benefit if they are age 62 or older. A parent is considered to be “dependent” if the deceased worker contributed at least one-half of the parent’s support.

Special rules may apply to adopted children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and stepgrandchildren of the deceased worker. Different rules of eligibility may also apply to a surviving spouse who is caring for the deceased worker’s disabled child.

Alert: Surviving spouses who remarry before reaching age 60 may lose their eligibility for survivors benefits. In addition, some divorced spouses who were married to the deceased worker for at least ten years may be eligible for benefits. You should check with SSA to determine your eligibility for benefits if you fall into one of those categories.

What is full retirement age for a survivor?

Full retirement age for survivors depends upon the year of your birth.

  • For survivors born before 1940, full retirement age is 65.
  • For survivors born between 1940 and 1944, subtract 1944 from the year of your birth and multiply the result by 2 months. That calculation gives you the number of months after turning 65 at which you will be eligible for survivor benefits. For example, the full retirement age for survivors born in 1947 is 65 years and 6 months (1947 minus 1944 equal 3 times 2 equals 6 months).
  • For survivors born between 1945 and 1956, the full retirement age is 66.
  • For survivors born between 1957 and 1961, subtract 1961 from the year of your birth and multiply the result by 2 months. That calculation gives you the number of months after turning 66 at which you will be eligible for survivor benefits.
  • For survivors born in 1962 or later, full retirement age is 67.

How much is the survivors benefit?

The monthly benefit payment is calculated by using a formula that takes into consideration how much the worker earned over the course of his or her lifetime. Most people who pay social security taxes receive a Social Security statement in the mail that estimates the amount of the survivors benefit payment. You can also use the benefit calculator on the Social Security website to obtain an estimate of benefits for which you are eligible.

Surviving spouses who have reached full retirement age are eligible for the full amount of the basic retirement benefit that would have been paid to the deceased worker if he or she were still living. A surviving spouse who is at least 60 years old but has not reached full retirement age is eligible to receive a percentage of the basic benefit that the deceased worker would have received. The percentage depends upon the age of the surviving spouse. Children receive 75 percent of the basic benefit.

In addition to the monthly benefit, a lump sum death benefit may be available to a surviving spouse or child. The current amount of that benefit is $255.

Is a survivors benefit available to the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage?

The Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, provided that the word “spouse” as used in federal laws means someone who is married to a person of the opposite sex. That law barred a spouse who was legally married to a person of the same sex from collecting survivors benefits.

In 2013, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional to the extent that it denies spouses in same-sex marriages the same rights and privileges that are enjoyed by spouses in opposite-sex marriages. As a result of that decision, the SSA now makes the survivors benefit available to a surviving spouse who was legally married to someone of the same sex.

Should you take the survivors benefit?

Assuming that a surviving spouse qualifies for his or her own social security benefit after retirement, the spouse has an option of taking that benefit instead of taking the survivors benefit. A spouse who started receiving the survivors benefit at age 60 can switch to his or her own benefit upon reaching the age of 62 and at any later time prior to reaching the age of 70.

It makes sense to take your own benefit instead of the survivors benefit if your own benefit is larger. Whether it makes sense to switch from the survivors benefit to your own benefit depends upon a number of factors. You should talk to a financial advisor or a representative of the SSA to review your options before making that decision.

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