Surviving the System: Navigating Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

 

Social Security benefits can seem like a maze of rules and exceptions. One subsection of benefits Social Security provides is that of survivor’s benefits. Survivor’s benefits are benefits that may be received by loved ones after a working family member has passed away. These benefits are specifically made to help cushion the blow of the loss of a family wage earner’s income or supplement the income of elderly surviving spouses. Those eligible for survivor’s benefits will see these benefits trigger when a loved one who was employed/retired from a job insured under Social Security is reported to the Social Security Administration as deceased. Beginning the process of obtaining your benefits can occur one of two ways. First, the funeral home which handled arrangements for the deceased reports the death to the Social Security Administration using the loved one’s social security number which in turn begins the survivor’s benefit process. Alternatively, the survivor may contact the local Social Security office to report the death and request the start of benefits.  

HOW BENEFITS ARE EARNED 

Social Security isn’t just a retirement program; the taxes that workers pay to Social Security go to fund survivor’s benefits as well. The longer a worker is employed at a job insured under Social Security, the more credits accumulate toward survivor’s benefits. Credits are the units used by the Social Security Administration to determine if a worker has met the minimum requirements to qualify for Social Security benefits. In 2018, a worker receives one credit for each $1,320 of earnings, up to a maximum of four credits per year. As the average earning levels increase, the amount of earnings needed per credit increases as well.  

The number of years a worker needs to have worked for their survivors to become eligible for benefits depends on the age of the worker when they pass away; the younger the worker when they pass, the fewer years they are required to have worked. For an average worker who retires in their mid-late 60s, they have met the requirements for survivor’s benefits if 40 credits are earned (10 years of qualifying work). If a worker has only worked for 1 ½ years within three years prior to their death, benefits may be paid to the worker’s children or their spouse who is caring for the worker’s children even without meeting the 40 credit requirement. 

Certain types of jobs have special rules when it comes to earning Social Security benefits. Domestic workers, farm workers, and those who work for a church or church controlled organization that does not pay social security taxes can earn credits in alternative ways other than the traditional earnings based calculation.  

SURVIVOR ELEIGBILITY 

There are 2 forms of Survivor’s Benefits; a one-time lump-sum payment and monthly payments.  

A surviving spouse may be entitled to a one-time lump-sum payment of $255. In select circumstances, a spouse living apart from the deceased may be eligible for benefits as well as a child of the deceased if no surviving spouse is available. The survivor must apply for this lump sum payment. The application must be filed within 2 years after the date of death of the worker.  

According to the Social Security Administration, there are about 5 million widows and widowers receiving monthly Social Security benefits based on their deceased spouse’s earnings record. Additionally, for many of those survivors, particularly aged women, those benefits are keeping them out of poverty. Monthly survivor’s benefits may be received by the following individuals: 

  • A widow or widower age 60+ (age 50+ if disabled); 
  • A widow or widower any age caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or disabled; 
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is- 
  • Younger than age 18 (or up to age 19 if they’re a full-time student in elementary or secondary school); or 
  • Age 18 or older with a disability before age 22; 
  • A stepchild, grandchild, step grandchild, or adopted child under certain circumstances; 
  • Parents, age 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support; and 
  • A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances 

The deceased’s widow or widower may be able to get full benefits at full retirement age. The full retirement age for survivors is age 66 for people born in 1945-1956. The full retirement age will gradually increase to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later. The widow or widower may be eligible for reduced benefits as early as age 60. In the event the widow or widower is disabled, benefits can begin as early as age 50. In addition, the widow or widower can get benefits at any age if they take care of the deceased’s child who is 16 or younger or disabled and is receiving Social Security benefits.1  

If the deceased has children who are unmarried and under the age of 18 (or up to age 19 if they’re full time students in elementary or secondary school), these children may also be entitled to survivor’s benefits. In addition, surviving children who are disabled may be eligible at any age so long as they became disabled before the age of 22 and remain disabled thereafter.  

The deceased’s surviving parents may be eligible for survivor’s benefits if they’re age 62 or older and were dependent upon the deceased income. In order for the parents to be dependent, the deceased would have needed to provide at least half of the parent’s support. 

If the deceased has a surviving former spouse (they divorced) and the former spouse is age 60 or older (50-59 if disabled) and their marriage lasted at least 10 years, they may be eligible for benefits. The former spouse does not have to meet the age or marriage length requirements if they take care of the deceased’s child who is younger than 16 or disabled. The child who the former spouse takes care of must be the deceased’s and the former spouse naturally or must have been legally adopted.  

BENEFIT AMOUNTS 

The amount paid as survivor’s benefits are based on the amount that the worker receives (or would receive if they pass away before full retirement age) as their basic Social Security benefit. The more the deceased worker paid into the Social Security system and received or were eligible to receive as their basic benefit, the higher the amount the survivor’s benefit will be. The survivor’s age and relation to the deceased worker are also taken into account.   

Below are some examples of the benefits that survivors may receive: 

  • Widow or widower, full retirement age or older—100 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit amount;  
  • Widow or widower, age 60—full retirement age—71½ to 99 percent of the deceased worker’s basic amount; 
  • Disabled widow or widower aged 50 through 59—71½ percent; 
  • Widow or widower, any age, caring for a child under age 16—75 percent; 
  • A child under age 18 (19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or disabled—75 percent; and 
  • Dependent parent(s) of the deceased worker, age 62 or older: 
  • One surviving parent—82½ percent. 
  • Two surviving parents—75 percent to each parent. 
  • Percentages for a surviving divorced spouse would be the same as above 
  • Percentages for a surviving divorced widow or widower would be the same as above. 

There are limits to the total amount of benefits that a family can receive in a months’ time. The limit varies, but is generally equal to about 150 to 180 percent of the deceased’s benefit rate. If the sum of the benefits payable to the family members is greater than this limit, the benefits will be reduced proportionately.   

In the event a widow or widower remarries after beginning benefits of their deceased spouse, there may be some potential issues. Generally, a spouse cannot remarry and get survivor’s benefits. However, remarriage after age 60 (50 if disabled) may not prevent benefit payments to the surviving spouse from their deceased former spouse. Furthermore, at age 62 or older, the surviving spouse may get benefits from their new spouse if the benefits are higher than that of the earlier deceased spouse.  

APPEALING A DENIED CLAIM 

After applying for survivor’s benefits and being denied or if the benefits which are awarded are less/different than that which the survivor expects, the survivor has the option to appeal the Social Security Administration’s decision. A request for appeal must be made in writing and received within 60 days of the date which the applicant for benefits receives the letter containing the Social Security Administration’s decision.  

There are multiple levels of appealing the decisions of the Social Security Administration. In general, the levels include reconsideration, hearing by an administrative law judge, review by the Appeals Council, and Federal Court review. Reconsideration involves a complete review of the claim by someone who did not take part in the initial decision; reviewing all old information and any new information submitted. Once reconsidered, a letter is mailed to the survivor/applicant with the decision on the claim for benefits.  

If, after reconsideration, the survivor/applicant still disagrees with the decision, they may ask for a hearing. The hearing is conducted by an administrative law judge who had no part in the initial decision or the reconsideration. At this hearing, the judge may question the applicant and other witnesses or experts called to testify. The applicant or the applicant’s representative may question any and all witnesses called at the hearing. After the hearing, the administrative judge will make a decision and send a letter to the applicant with a copy of their decision. 

If the applicant still disagrees with the initial decision, reconsideration, and the administrative judge, the applicant may ask for a review by the Social Security’s Appeals Council. The Appeals Council has the ability to accept the request of deny the request if they believe the administrative hearing decision was correct. The Appeals Council may review the case themselves or return it to the administrative judge. In either event, a letter with the Appeals Council’s decision to accept, deny or return the decision for review will be sent to the survivor/applicant. 

At the end of this chain may be the option to file suit in Federal District Court if the survivor/applicant disagrees with the decision of the Social Security Appeals Council. 

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I THINK I’VE BEEN WRONGLY DENIED BENEFITS? 

If you think that you’ve been wrongly denied survivor’s benefits, have questions regarding applying for survivor’s benefits, or need information about a potential suit against the Social Security Administration, we have a team of tough, smart attorneys who can answer your questions. Contact us today for a free consultation.