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A Guide for Federal Employees Regarding Social Security Survivor Benefits

Edward Zurndorfer provides a guide for Federal Employees regarding social security survivor benefits

Edward A. Zurndorfer

Most federal employees have been paying into the Social Security system via payroll deduction for most of their working careers. This includes for most federal employees working temporary jobs when they were teenagers or in college, serving in the uniformed services, working in private industry, and/or currently working for the federal government under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). While paying into Social Security, employees have earned the minimum number of Social Security earnings credits to receive retirement benefits and provide survivor benefits to family members, including a spouse, ex-spouse, children and parents.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis in the U.S. and worldwide, nearly 75,000 individuals have died. Both young and old have died. With respect to Social Security survivor benefits, there is no minimum age a deceased individual needs to have been in order for eligible family members to receive survivor benefits. But employees and their family members should be knowledgeable of these benefits and how to apply for them. It needs to be emphasized that the Social Security Administration (SSA) does not contact individuals who are eligible for survivor benefits upon the death of a relative.  It is the responsibility of surviving family members to contact the SSA when a relative has died in order to receive these survivor benefits.

This column discusses Social Security survivor benefits for family members and how they need to apply for these benefits upon the death of a loved one. First, it is important to first define some Social Security terms.

  • Earnings credits. Social Security benefits are based on credits earned as an employee or a self-employed per person. A maximum of four credits can be earned per year.
  • Fully insured. An individual is considered fully insured upon accumulating 40 earnings credits.
  • Currently insured. An individual who has earned six (or more) credits during the 13 quarter period (about three years) ending in the quarter the individual died is considered currently insured.
  • Primary insurance amount (PIA). The primary insurance amount (PIA) is the benefit a person would receive if he/she elects to begin receiving his or her Social Security monthly retirement benefit at his/her full retirement age.

What Are the Social Security Family Survivor Benefits?

When a “fully insured” individual – that is, an individual who has earned at least 40 credits of Social Security – dies, survivor monthly benefits may be paid to eligible family members as:

  • Monthly widow(er)’s insurance benefits;
  • Monthly surviving child’s insurance benefits;
  • Monthly father’s or mother’s insurance benefits;
  • Monthly parent’s insurance benefits; and/or
  • Lump-sum death payment.

             Note that survivor benefits paid are paid as a percentage of the deceased individual’s PIA. The PIA is defined as an individual’s monthly benefit amount at his or her full retirement age (FRA). FRA is age 65 to 67 depending on what year an individual was born. For example, individuals born between before 1938 have a FRA of age 65, those individuals born between 1943 and 1954 have a FRA of age 66, and those individuals born after 1959 have a FRA of age 67. It also makes no difference at which age an individual dies as far as eligible family members receiving surviving benefits. But the older an individual is at the time of his or her death, the more the individual presumably has been paying into Social Security resulting in a larger deceased’s PIA, and the therefore the larger the family survivor benefits will be.

            Each family survivor benefit is now explained.

Monthly Widow(er)’s Benefit

The widow(er)’s insurance benefit equals 100 percent of the deceased spouse’s PIA plus any additional amount the deceased individual was entitled to because of delayed retirement credits. The deceased spouse had to be fully insured at the time of his or her death. A widow(er) qualifies for survivor benefits if the surviving spouse was married to the deceased spouse for at least nine months before death occurred. No length of marriage is required if death was due to an accident or military duty. The widow(er) must file for the Social Security widow(er) benefit with the SSA.

The amount of the widow(er) monthly benefit is 71.5 to 100 percent of a deceased spouse’s PIA, depending on what age the widow(er) applies for the benefit. The earliest age a widow(er) could apply for the benefit is age 60 (age 50 if the widow(er) is fully disabled). If the widow(er) is age 60 at the time of applying for the benefit, then he or she will receive 71.5 percent of the PIA. If the surviving spouse waits to receive the survivor benefit, then there will be less reduction the longer the delay until there is no reduction if the widow(er) were to apply for the benefit at his or her FRA. The following examples illustrate:

Example 1. Howard, age 68, was married to Kate, age 66 when he died suddenly. At the time of his death, Howard had not started receiving his Social Security, two years after he reached his FRA of age 66. At the time of death, Howard’s monthly Social Security benefit was $2,800, which is 16 percent higher than it was when he turned age 66 because of the delayed retirement credits. Kate, who has reached her FRA of age 66, is eligible for a full widow monthly Social Security benefit of $2,800 starting the month after Howard’s death.

Example 2. Florence, age 62, is married to Kenny, age 60. Florence suddenly dies. Her PIA at the time of her death was $2,400 per month. Kenny is eligible for a widower benefit. However, if Kenny were to apply for the widower benefit at his age of 60, the survivor widower benefit would be equal to 71.5 percent of Florence’s PIA. This is because Kenny is age 60 and under his FRA.

A surviving divorced spouse qualifies for a former spouse widow(er) benefit if previously married to a fully insured individual for at least ten years. However, if the surviving divorced spouse remarries before age 60, then benefits are not payable unless, and until, the subsequent marriage ends. Remarriage after attaining age 60 does not prevent or stop entitlement to widow(er) benefits.

Monthly Surviving Children Benefit

A child is entitled to children survivor monthly benefits if the child was a child of the deceased fully insured, or currently insured, parent and: (1) the child is under age 18, or between age 18 and age 19 and a full-time student at an elementary or secondary school, or age 18 or over and has a permanent disability which began before age 22; (2) the child was dependent upon the deceased parent; (3) the child is not married; and (4) an application for the child’s survivor monthly benefit is filed with the SSA.

A child includes the deceased individual’s: (1) natural (biological) legitimate child; (2) stepchild, if the child has been a stepchild of the deceased individual for at least nine months before the day of the parent’s death; (3) legally adopted child; and (4) dependent grandchild or step-grandchild.

            A child’s benefit may not be payable for some months if any of the following conditions are met: (1) the child works and earns more than the yearly exempt amount; (2) the child works outside the U.S. for more than 45 hours in a month; (3) the child is an alien who is outside the U.S. for more than six full calendar months and does not meet an exception to the alien non-payment provision:; (4) the child is in a U.S. Treasury-restricted country where the SSA cannot send U.S. government payments; 5) the deceased parent had been deported and the child is an alien who is outside the U.S.; (6) the child is confined within the U.S. in a jail, prison or correctional facility for conviction of a felony; (7) the child does not have a Social Security number; and (8) the child is in the U.S. and is neither a U.S. citizen nor a lawfully present alien.

The surviving child’s survivor monthly benefit is 75 percent of the deceased parent’s PIA. While there are no limits as for as how many eligible children in a family can receive children survivor benefits, there is an overall family maximum. If that maximum is reached, then all the survivor benefits based on the deceased’s PIA (with the exception of a former spouse’s survivor monthly benefit) are reduced proportionately.

Children survivor benefits will cease when the child dies or when the child reaches age 18 and is neither under a disability nor a full-time or secondary school student. In the latter case, benefits will stop at age 19. Children who were permanently disabled before age 22 will keep receiving their survivor monthly benefits.

Monthly Surviving Father’s or Mother’s Benefit

A widow(er) is entitled to father’s or a mother’s survivor benefits if all of the following conditions are met: (1) the spouse died fully insured or currently insured; (2) the widow(er) filed an application with the SSA for a father’s or a mother’s benefit; (3) the surviving spouse is not currently entitled to a Social Security benefit of his or her own (that is, the surviving spouse is younger than age 62 or is not disabled); (4) the surviving spouse has in care a child of the deceased spouse who is under age 16 or a child who is disabled who is entitled to children survivor benefits (see above); (4) the surviving spouse has not remarried; (5) the surviving spouse is not entitled to widow(er) survivor benefits because the surviving spouse is younger than age 60 or if disabled, younger than age 50; and (6) the widow(er) files for the benefit with the SSA.

A surviving divorced parent is entitled to a father’s or a mother’s benefit under these conditions: (1) he or she has not remarried; (2) he or she was married to the deceased former spouse who was either currently or fully insured; (3) he or she is not entitled to a widow(er) survivor benefit because the former spouse is younger than age 60 or age 50 if disabled; (4) he or she has in care a child of the deceased former spouse who is younger than age 16 or a child who is disabled and who is entitled to children survivor benefits (see above); and (5) the surviving divorced parent files for the benefit with the SSA.

The father’s or mother’s benefit is equal to 75 percent of the deceased spouse’s or deceased former spouse’s PIA.

Monthly Surviving Parent’s Benefit

A parent’s survivor benefit, if only one parent is entitled to benefits, equals 82.5 percent of a deceased child’s PIA. If two parents are entitled to a survivor benefit based on a child’s PIA, then each parent’s survivor benefit equals 75 percent of the deceased child’s PIA.

A parent(s) is entitled to parent’s benefits if he or she is a parent of a deceased child and the following conditions are met: (1) the deceased child was either fully insured or currently insured at the time of death; (2) the parent)s) file an application with the SSA at the time of death; (3)at the time death,  the parent(s) was receiving at least half-time support from the deceased child ; (4) the parent(s) have not remarried since the child’s death; and (5) the parent(s) was a natural parent, or the parent(s) legally adopted the deceased child before the child became 16, or the parent(s) became the decedent’s stepparent by a marriage entered into before the deceased child became age 16; (6) the parent(s) is not entitled to a Social Security retirement benefit of his or her own or the amount of the parent’s Social Security is less than the deceased child’s Social Security; and (7) an application for the parent’s benefit is filed with the SSA.

Note that a parent’s benefit is not paid if: (1) the parent is under full retirement age, working and earning more than the exempt amount; or (2) the parent(s) does not have a Social Security number and refuses to apply for one.

Lump-Sum Death Benefit

A lump-sum death benefit payment may be made based on the Social Security record of an individual who dies either fully insured or currently insured. The lump-sum payment is a one-time payment of $255. It is paid in addition to any monthly survivor benefits that are due to eligible family members.

The following family members are eligible for the lump-sum death benefit:

  • Surviving widow(er). This assumes that the surviving spouse and the deceased spouse were living in the same household when the deceased spouse died.
  • Children. If there is no surviving spouse to receive the lump-sum death payment, then the lump-sum can paid to the child (children) of the deceased individual. The child (children) must have been entitled to, or eligible for, benefits based on the decedent’s earnings record for the month the parent died. In case of several children, each child is eligible for an equal amount of the lump-sum, divided equally.

An application for the lump-sum death payment must be filed if the surviving spouse is not entitled to a widow(er) benefit based on the deceased individual’s Social Security record for the month just before the month in which the spouse died, or if a surviving child is applying for the lump-sum death benefit payment.

The application for the lump-sum death payment must be filed within the two-year period ending with the second anniversary of the insured worker’s death. The filing period deadline may be extended under certain conditions.

Summary of Family Social Security Survivor Benefits

The following table summarizes which family members are entitled to Social Security survivor benefits when a fully insured family member dies. Also presented is how much each family member receives as a percentage of the deceased’s primary insurance amount.

Who Receives Survivor Benefits
Benefits Paid To:Percent of Deceased’s PIA Payable*
Widow(er) at FRA**100.0%
Widow(er) at age 6071.5
Disabled widow(er) at age 50-5971.5
Widow(er) under age 60 with eligible child who is under age 16 or disabled75.0
Eligible child75.0
Eligible parent82.5
Two eligible parents75.0 (each parent)

   *Benefits may be limited by the family maximum

**As the full retirement age (FRA) for workers rises, this age will also rise.

Applying for Social Security Survivor Benefits

Upon the death of an individual who was fully insured and therefore eligible to give survivor benefits, an eligible family member needs to contact the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) to report the individual’s death. This should be done promptly because most survivor benefits are paid starting the month after the individual died. A delay in contacting the SSA will delay the payment of the first Social Security monthly survivor check.  

Edward A. Zurndorfer is a Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Life Underwriter, Chartered Financial Consultant, Chartered Federal Employee Benefits Consultant, Certified Employees Benefits Specialist and IRS Enrolled Agent in Silver Spring, MD. Tax planning, Federal employee benefits, retirement and insurance consulting services offered through EZ Accounting and Financial Services, and EZ Federal Benefits Seminars, located at 833 Bromley Street – Suite A, Silver Spring, MD 20902-3019 and telephone number 301-681-1652. Raymond James is not affiliated with and does not endorse the opinions or services of Edward A. Zurndorfer or EZ Accounting and Financial Services. The information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete. While the employees of Serving Those Who Serve are familiar with the tax provisions of the issues presented herein, as Financial Advisors of RJFS, we are not qualified to render advice on tax or legal matters. You should discuss tax or legal matters with the appropriate professional.