6 Things You Should Know About Social Security Survivor Benefits

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Nobody wants to think about dying, but unfortunately, it’s such a big component of financial planning that you can’t afford to ignore the prospects of dying earlier than expected. In addition to planning for the future with life insurance options, you should also be aware of Social Security survivor benefits.

Social Security Survivor Benefits

When You Report a Death

In most cases, funeral homes are responsible for reporting deaths to the Social Security Administration (though you need to give their Social Security number beforehand). If you want or need to report the death yourself, you can call 1-800-772-1213 (Mon-Fri, 7am to 7pm) or visit a local Social Security office to file the report.

It’s important not to cash any checks in the deceased’s name after their death; you will receive a one-time death benefit of $255 for the first month, followed by the regular survivor benefit checks for each month thereafter (once your application has been processed and approved).

Who is Eligible to Receive Survivor Benefits?

The Social Security Administration lists several potential recipients for monthly survivor benefits, including:

  • Widow or widower (50+ years old if disabled, 60+ years old if not disabled)
  • Widow or widower of any age who’s responsible for the deceased’s child(ren) who are under the age of 16 or disabled
  • Unmarried child of the deceased who is younger than 18 or disabled
  • Stepchild, grandchild or adopted child (under certain circumstances)
  • Parents (62+ years old) dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support
  • Surviving divorced spouse (under certain circumstances; typically must have been married for 10 or more years to qualify)

Are Survivor Benefits Available?

Even if you’re eligible for survivor benefits based on your relation to the deceased, you may not automatically qualify for survivor benefits if the deceased hadn’t worked long enough to qualify. According to the Social Security Administration, workers earn up to four credits on an annual basis, with one credit equating to $1,410 of wages or self-employment income in 2020 figures.

From there, Social Security survivor benefits are dependent upon the worker’s age at the time of death. The younger someone is when they die, the fewer credits they need to have for their family members to qualify for survivor benefits; as a note, the maximum number of credits necessary for Social Security benefits is 40 (10 years in the workforce).

Exceptions to the credit minimum threshold are typically made in instances where the worker has children and a surviving spouse who cares for the children; as long as the worker had at least six credits in the three years preceding their death, their spouse and children will qualify for survivor benefits.

What Documents Do You Need to Apply?

The documents you need to apply for survivor benefits depends on your relationship to the deceased, but they oftentimes require some of the following: proof of worker’s death, worker’s birth certificate, proof of U.S. citizenship status, W-2 forms or other employment-related tax forms for the past year and/or a marriage certificate.

As a note, Social Security requires original forms for most of these (including birth certificate), but you can submit photocopies of documents like tax returns.

How Much Will I Receive?

If you’re a widow/widower who’s full retirement age or older, you’ll receive 100% of the deceased’s retirement benefit. If you’re a 60-year-old widow/widower, you’ll receive somewhere between 71.5-99% of the deceased’s retirement benefit amount. A disabled widow/widower who’s at least 50 will receive 71.5%, while a widow/widower of any age caring for children and the minor children themselves will receive 75% of the deceased’s retirement benefit amount.

There are limits in place for how much money a family can receive from Social Security, which typically ranges from 150-180% of the basic retirement benefits rate.

How to Get Social Security Survivor Benefits

When you apply for Social Security survivor benefits, you’ll be asked a series of questions prior to processing your application. These questions will cover basic information about you (name, SSN, place/date of birth, citizenship status) and more complicated personal and financial information (dates/locations of all marriages, employment history, amount of worker’s earnings in the year preceding their death, etc.).

While it can seem like a huge hassle to go through the application process while you’re still grieving, it’s important to apply for Social Security survivor benefits as early as possible to maintain your financial stability. Fortunately, the SSA has plenty of resources for survivors to help them navigate the application process and successfully receive benefits after the loss of a loved one.

Once you begin receiving benefits, it’s important to understand how they will impact your tax situation (e.g., 85% of your benefits are taxable if you earn more than $34,000 as a single filer or more than $44,000 as a joint filer) and how long you’ll receive the benefits for. If you’re the surviving spouse, you’ll receive the benefits for the rest of your life, while minor recipients typically lose eligibility after they turn 18 (unless they have a disability).

Thinking about and planning for death isn’t high on anyone’s priority list, but it’s nevertheless one of the most important things you should do while planning for both your and your family’s financial futures.

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