A Guide to Social Security Survivors Benefits

What are Survivors Benefits: A Brief History

Economic insecurity was a social issue our nation addressed over 80 years ago with the enactment of the Social Security Act in 1935. What most people don’t realize is that the Act also provides survivors benefits: spouses, children, and dependent parents of a deceased worker can receive survivors benefits. Yet, few people understand the program rules for eligibility and may be reluctant to ask.

How to Become Insured for Survivors Benefits

Eligibility for Social Security survivors benefits is a matter of insured status. With few exceptions, a worker can insure his or her family for Social Security survivors benefits once the worker has 40 quarters of covered earnings. Breaking this down more simply: that’s 10 years of employment where the worker earned at least $5,640 per year, or $1,410 per quarter (2020 required amounts—prior years may be lower), in wages or self-employment income. The actual benefit amount will vary depending on the worker’s individual earnings and the number of quarters of taxes paid on those earnings, and can be greater for a family with more than one survivor (e.g. surviving spouse with surviving minor children in the care of a surviving spouse).

However, if the worker had income or wages not subject to the FICA tax then the worker will not be insured. Some examples are (1) state employees or public school teachers who pay into a state-sponsored, exempt retirement system, or (2) self-employed workers who fail to report their earnings to the IRS. 

Who Can Receive Survivors Benefits?

This is a 2-part question. First, is the question of the worker’s insured status (see above). Second, is the question of the survivor’s relationship to the deceased worker. Spouses and children may be eligible to claim on their deceased spouse or parent’s work record, but they must be able to prove their legal relationship to the deceased spouse/parent. Social Security follows state laws concerning the family relationship. For a child, this could become an issue if parentage was never established during the worker’s lifetime. For spouses that were “common law” married to the worker, but were never married in a civil ceremony, this could also pose a problem. A probate attorney can counsel and assist the family with the necessary state court proceedings to establish these family relationships. 

When Should You Apply for Survivors Benefits?

Application should be made as soon as you learn of the worker’s death, or otherwise become eligible under Social Security rules. Social Security will not pay more than 6 months of retroactive benefits for a minor child and 12 months for an eligible surviving spouse. Additionally, it’s important to understand that only eligible survivors can receive Social Security survivors benefits. Children can receive survivors benefits, but only until they are 18 years old and have graduated high school. Additionally, the living parent caring for a surviving minor child under the age of 16 may be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits if that parent had been married to the worker. This is true even if the surviving parent was divorced from the worker before the death occurred. An adult child who became disabled prior to the age of 22 may be eligible to receive survivors benefits into adulthood.

A surviving spouse is entitled to survivors benefits once they reach age 60 and as long as they have not re-married prior to then. However, if the surviving spouse is disabled, then they can apply for survivors benefits as early as age 50, but must apply within 7 years of the deceased spouse’s death. Additionally, if a surviving spouse claims the survivors benefits prior to their full retirement age, the benefit will be reduced. Finally, a divorced surviving spouse is also entitled to survivors benefits if they were married to the worker at least 10 years and did not re-marry prior to the age of 60.

Social Security survivors benefits can provide financial security during a time of loss. Understanding your benefits is a first step to preparing a lasting legacy for your family.

If you have questions about Social Security survivors benefits in the Dallas, Plano, McKinney, Frisco, Allen, & Prosper area, contact me, a Social Security Attorney, to discuss further. In addition to in-person consultations, I am also available by teleconference and videoconference. I also represent individuals in probate and guardianship proceedings needed to establish family relationships for the purpose of receiving Social Security survivors benefits.

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