You and your spouse worked hard for your entire lives, paying into the Social Security system. Social Security was designed by the United States government to provide economic assistance for the retired, disabled, and elderly. Social Security benefits replace or supplement your income and hopefully allow you and your spouse to enjoy your retirement in comfort together. But what if the unthinkable happens and he or she passes away? In addition to the emotional loss, how will you cope with the financial loss?
You may not have to stress about your finances. Social Security allows a surviving spouse to collect survivor benefits. The amount you can collect varies according to your personal circumstances (and the Social Security website is packed with detailed information), but we'll break it down for you.
In 2014, about 5 million widows and widowers receive Social Security benefits from a deceased spouse's earnings [source: Social Security]. When a Social Security participant dies, his or her spouse gets a small one-time death benefit, usually around $255. Then, survivor benefits become available.
The survivor benefit amount hinges on the answers to three important questions:
- Was the deceased spouse already collecting Social Security benefits at the time of his or her death?
- When did the deceased spouse begin collecting Social Security benefits?
- How old is the surviving spouse?
If the deceased spouse was already collecting benefits at time of death, then the surviving spouse collects the same amount, plus any cost of living adjustments. If the deceased spouse wasn't already collecting benefits, then the surviving spouse collects the amount the deceased spouse would collect if he or she were still alive.
If the deceased spouse had started collected Social Security benefits before full retirement age (65 to 67, depending on when he or she was born), then benefits are reduced. However, if the spouse died before ever filing for Social Security benefits, when the surviving spouse reaches retirement age, he or she is eligible for 100 percent of survivor benefits. Note that survivors can begin to claim as early as age 60, rather than 62, which is normally the earliest age for taking Social Security.
If the surviving spouse is also of retirement age and also collecting Social Security, she or he cannot collect double benefits. The surviving spouse may collect whichever benefit is greater.
Here are a few other wrinkles. If the surviving spouse is disabled, the benefits can kick in at age 50, although with the same reductions for a non-disabled spouse who activated them at age 60 (around 28.5 percent) [source: Blankenship].
If the surviving spouse remarries before age 60, survivor benefits are no longer available. But if he or she either divorces or is widowed a second time, the survivor benefits are available again. If there's more than one deceased spouse, the survivor is entitled to the higher-paying survivor benefits -- as long as they were married more than 10 years. If the surviving spouse remarries after age 60, survivor benefits aren't affected.
The survivor benefit is also available even if the spouses were divorced at time of death, as long as they were married for at least 10 years and the surviving spouse did not remarry.
As you can see, even though Social Security death benefits are a confusing process, they can be a great help for those who are left behind.
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