If someone dies who was receiving Social Security Benefits, or who was eligible to receive them at the time of death, the surviving spouse is entitled to those benefits. These benefits are not granted automatically. Instead, the survivor must apply for them. The application process, however, is relatively simple. Knowing when to begin receiving benefits to maximize your return is less straightforward; you may need expert advice.
When Survivor Benefits Begin
A widow or widower is entitled to the same Social Security benefits due the deceased partner and can begin receiving those benefits at any time he or she elects between age 60 and the year the survivor's own full benefits normally begin, which at the time of writing is age 66. The Social Security Administration website "Social Security Benefit Amounts For The Surviving Spouse By Year Of Birth," notes that the earlier the surviving spouse begins taking benefits, the lower the actual monthly benefit amount, offsetting the greater probable length of time benefits will be received.
The Social Security Administration also notes that if the deceased spouse elected to receive benefits before reaching full retirement age, this also reduces the monthly benefit amount paid to the surviving spouse. In all cases, these adjustments are designed to provide all parties with equal Social Security benefits.
Other Survivor Benefits
A low-income, un-remarried surviving spouse of a deceased veteran may also receive monthly death benefit payments from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. In order to be eligible, the deceased spouse must have served during wartime as defined by the VA and have received a discharge other than dishonorable. These benefits do not reduce the benefits otherwise due from Social Security and are tax-free.
Applying for Survivor Benefits.
Social Security does not issue two monthly benefit checks to the same party. If you are eligible for benefits both as a survivor and on your own account, the SSA makes the appropriate adjustment and issues a single check covering both benefits. You can begin applying for your deceased spouse's Social Security benefits either at your local Social Security office or by phone at 1-800-772-1213. At some point, you may be asked to provide documents proving your eligibility, such as birth and death certificates, proof of U.S. citizenship, military discharge papers and marriage certificate. Original documents are required in some instances, such as birth and death certificates. In the absence of an original document, however, the department accepts verified copies, which you can obtain for a small fee from the issuing agencies. Verified copies have an original -- not photocopied -- stamp and signature.
Complexities of Benefit Rules
The basic premise of Social Security is straightforward, but the implementation of benefits can be tricky. A Forbes article on maximizing benefits notes that there are 2,728 separate rules in the Social Security Handbook. According to the author, who has researched the subject, Social Security's own benefits counselors often provide inaccurate advice. To determine when to take benefits to maximize your return, you may need to seek the advice of an independent professional Social Security benefits counselor or use a computerized benefits analyzer.
- Social Security Administration: Social Security Benefit Amounts For The Surviving Spouse By Year Of Birth
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Survivors Pension
- Social Security Administration: Information You Need To Apply For Widow's, Widower's Or Surviving Divorced Spouse's Benefits - Form SSA-10
- Forbes: 44 Social Security 'Secrets' All Baby Boomers and Millions of Current Recipients Need to Know - Revised!
- Maximize My Social Security: When Should I Take Social Security to Maximize My Benefits?
I am a retired Registered Investment Advisor with 12 years experience as head of an investment management firm. I also have a Ph.D. in English and have written more than 4,000 articles for regional and national publications.