When loved ones pass away, there are lots of considerations, including what happens to their Social Security.

The decedent’s payments need to be stopped, but survivor benefits may be available to the spouse or, in certain cases, children.

When a Social Security Recipient Dies

Social Security benefits stop at death. If a loved one who was receiving Social Security dies, you need to notify the Social Security Administration as soon as possible. Often the funeral home does this as one of its services, but if not, you can notify Social Security by calling 1-800-772-1213 or contacting your local Social Security office.

Benefits are not paid for the month the recipient dies and are not prorated. So, even if the recipient dies in the middle or end of the month, Social Security will not pay any benefits for that month. If the Social Security Administration is not notified on time and makes a payment, that payment will have to be returned.

Death Benefit

Regardless of age or eligibility for survivor benefits, surviving spouses are entitled to a one-time lump-sum payment of $255 if they were living with the decedent or collecting benefits on the decedent’s record.

If there is no surviving spouse, the payment can be made to a child who qualifies for benefits on the decedent’s record.

Survivor Benefits

In addition to the lump-sum death benefit, certain family members may be eligible to receive monthly survivor benefits, including the following:

  • A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if they have a disability).
  • A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances.
  • A widow or widower at any age who is caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or has a disability and is receiving child’s benefits.
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is younger than age 18 (or up to age 19 if they are a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school) or age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.
  • Parents, age 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support.

If the spouse has reached full retirement age when the decedent died, then the spouse begins receiving the decedent’s actual benefits. This is true even if the decedent and spouse were divorced, so long as they had been married for at least 10 years.

While a spouse can claim survivor’s benefits as early as age 60, the benefits will be permanently reduced. If the surviving spouse claims benefits between age 60 and full retirement age, he or she receives a reduced percentage of the decedent’s benefits. At age 60, the spouse will receive 71.5 percent of the actual benefits.

If the spouse waits to collect, this percentage increases each year until the spouse reaches full retirement age, at which point he or she can receive 100 percent of the actual benefits. A surviving spouse who is age 50 to 59 also receives 71.5 percent of the actual benefits. Spouses caring for a child and the decedent’s dependents receive 75 percent of the decedent’s actual benefit. Dependent parents receive 75 percent each or 82.5 percent if there is only one parent.

If a surviving spouse, including a divorced spouse, remarries before turning age 60, then the spouse is no longer eligible for benefits unless the new marriage ends. Spouses who remarry after age 60 are still eligible for survivor’s benefits.

Social Security survivor’s benefits provide a safety net to widows and widowers. But to get the most out of the benefit, you need to know the right time to claim.

Claiming your Social Security Benefits

While you can claim survivor’s benefits as early as age 60, if you claim benefits before your full retirement age, your benefits will be permanently reduced. If you claim benefits at your full retirement age, you will receive 100 percent of your spouse’s benefit or, if your spouse died before collecting benefits, 100 percent of what your spouse’s benefit would have been at full retirement age. Unlike with retirement benefits, delaying survivor’s benefits longer than your full retirement age will not increase the benefit. If you delay taking retirement benefits past your full retirement age, depending on when you were born your benefit will increase by 6 to 8 percent for every year that you delay up to age 70, in addition to any cost of living increases.

Retirement benefits or survivor’s benefits?

You cannot take both retirement benefits and survivor’s benefits at the same time. When deciding which one to take, you need to compare the two benefits to see which is higher. In some cases, the decision is easy—one benefit is clearly much higher than the other. In other situations, the decision can be a little more complicated and you may want to take your survivor’s benefit before switching to your retirement benefit.

To determine the best strategy, you will need to look at your retirement benefit at your full retirement age as well as at age 70 and compare that to your survivor’s benefit. If your retirement benefit at age 70 will be larger than your survivor’s benefit, it may make sense to claim your survivor’s benefit at your full retirement age. You can then let your retirement benefit continue to grow and switch to the retirement benefit at age 70.

Example: A widow has the option of taking full retirement benefits of $2,000/month or survivor’s benefits of $2,100/month. She can take the survivor’s benefits and let her retirement benefits continue to grow. When she reaches age 70, her retirement benefit will be approximately $2,480/month, and she can switch to retirement benefits. Depending on the widow’s life expectancy, this strategy may make sense even if the survivor’s benefit is smaller than the retirement benefit to begin with.

Keep in mind that divorced spouses are also entitled to survivor’s benefits if they were married for at least 10 years. If you remarry before age 60, you are not entitled to survivor’s benefits, but remarriage after age 60 does not affect benefits. In the case of remarriage, you may need to factor in the new spouse’s spousal benefit when figuring out the best way to maximize benefits.

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