As hurricanes Harvey and Irma and Jose and Maria take their toll on millions of people in the United States and Puerto Rico, many people consider this a wake-up call to think about how to protect their families in the wake of natural disaster or national crisis. The Social Security Administration awards and manages survivor's benefits when a wage-earner dies.
Here is a quick overview of five different types of family benefits covered by Social Security's Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program:
1. Widows/Widowers or Surviving Divorced Spouse's Benefits
After your death, your spouse (or ex-spouse if you were divorced) can receive Social Security benefits if they meet all eligibility criteria. According to the Social Security Administration, in July 2017 there were 3.7 million nondisabled widowers, 259,000 disabled widows, and 1.87 million children receiving monthly benefits based on the earnings record of a deceased wage-earner.
In the event of your death, your widow or widower may be eligible to receive:
- reduced benefits between 71 ½% and 99% of your benefit amount as early as age 60, or
- 75% of your benefit amount if caring for a child under age 16, or
- 100% of your benefit amount at full retirement age or older, or
- 71 ½% of your benefit amount between age 50 and 59 if he or she is disabled AND the disability started before or within seven years of your death.
What if my spouse has remarried?
If your non-disabled spouse has remarried after they were 60 years old, the remarriage will not affect their eligibility.
If your spouse is disabled, remarriage after age 50 will not affect their eligibility.
(In some instances the ex-spouse’s benefit under the new spouse will be higher than the disability benefit on the first spouse’s earnings record.)
You can find information that will help you apply for Widows', Widower's, and Surviving Divorced Spouse's Benefits here.
Your local field office can answer your questions if you call or visit the office to talk with a caseworker.
2. Child's Benefits
Social Security offers Child's Benefits to unmarried children who have a parent or parents who are deceased, disabled, or retired if they worked long enough to be eligible.
Your unmarried child can get benefits if they’re:
- Younger than age 18;
- 18-19 years old and a full-time student (no higher than grade 12); or
- 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.
What about stepchildren, grandchildren, stepgrandchildren, or adopted children?
A dependent child does not have to be your direct biological child to receive benefits if you are deceased, disabled, or retired and you have contributed enough into the Social Security Insurance program.
The rules are complicated.
The timing of the adoption and the entitlement for benefits is critical. See this blog about grandparents who have adopted their grandchildren.
You can find information you will need to apply for Child's Benefits here.
3. Mother's or Father's Benefits
Mother's or Father's benefits are paid to the surviving spouse or surviving divorced spouse of an insured worker who is caring for your child who is under age 16 or disabled.
There are additional criteria for eligibility.
You can find information you will need to apply for Mother's or Father's Benefits here.
4. Lump-Sum Death Payment
A surviving spouse may be eligible to receive a lump-sum death payment of $255 from the Social Security Administration if certain requirements are met. Generally, this payment must be applied for within two years of the date of death. If there is no spouse, a dependent child may be eligible.
What if I am divorced or separated?
Former spouses who are legally divorced are not eligible for the lump-sum death payment. However, if they were living apart without a legal divorce, the surviving spouse can still receive the lump-sum if they were already receiving benefits on their spouse's record or became eligible for benefits upon their death.
You can find information you will need to apply for a Lump-Sum Death Payment here.
5. Parent's Benefits
Social Security's Parent's Benefits are paid to a dependent parent of a deceased worker.
For a parent to be eligible for a benefit, he or she must meet the following criteria:
- The parent is at least age 62;
- The parent was receiving at least one-half of their support from the deceased worker at the time of death (or at the beginning of the deceased worker’s disability);
- The parent has provided timely documents that prove the deceased worker was providing at least one-half of their support;
- The parent is not entitled to a retirement insurance benefit equal to or exceeding the parent’s new benefit;
- The parent is the natural parent of the deceased worker (or became the stepparent or adoptive parent before the deceased worker reached the age of 16);
- The parent has not married after the worker’s death; and
- The deceased worker had enough work credits.
You can find information you will need to apply for Parent's Benefits here.
Social Security Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance provides an enormous safety net for the families of workers.
The rules and regulations are complicated, but the caseworkers in your local Social Security office are experts. They can point your family in the right direction if disaster strikes and takes you away from your loved ones.
For more information, including information in Spanish, see the pamphlet How Social Security Can Help You When a Family Member Dies.
Joni Beth Bailey is a Southern Illinois Social Security Disability lawyer.