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How does Social Security work when an ex-spouse dies?

Dear Savvy Senior: Who qualifies for Social Security survivor benefits? My ex-husband died last year, so I would like to find out whether my 17-year-old daughter or I are eligible for anything. — Divorced Survivor

Dear Divorced: If your ex-husband worked and paid Social Security taxes and you and/or your daughter meet the eligibility requirements, you may very well be eligible for survivor benefits, but you should act quickly because benefits are generally retroactive only up to six months. Here’s what you should know.

Under Social Security law, when a person who has worked and paid Social Security taxes dies, certain members of that person’s family may be eligible for survivor benefits, including spouses, former spouses and dependents. Here’s a breakdown of who qualifies.

>> Widow(er) and divorced widow(er): A surviving spouse who was married at least nine months is eligible to collect a monthly survivor benefit as early as age 60 (50 if disabled). A divorced surviving spouse is also eligible at this same age, if he or she was married at least 10 years and did not remarry before age 60 (50 if disabled), unless the marriage ends.

How much you’ll receive will depend on how much money (earnings that were subject to Social Security taxes) your spouse or ex-spouse made over his lifetime, and the age at which you apply for survivor benefits.

If you wait until your full retirement age (which is 66 for people born between 1945-1954 and gradually increases to age 67 for people born in 1960 or later), you’ll receive 100% of your deceased spouse’s or ex-spouse’s benefit amount. But if you apply between age 60 and your full retirement age, your benefit will be somewhere between 71.5% to 99% of his benefit.

There is, however, one exception: When a surviving spouse or ex-spouse is caring for a child (or children), under age 16 or disabled, of the deceased worker, he or she is eligible to receive 75% of the worker’s benefit amount at any age.

>> Unmarried children: Surviving unmarried children under age 18, or up to age 19 if they’re still attending high school, are eligible for survivor benefits, too. Benefits can also be paid to children at any age if they were disabled before age 22 and remain disabled. Both biological and adoptive children are eligible, as well as children born out of wedlock. Dependent stepchildren and grandchildren may also qualify. Children’s benefits are 75% of the worker’s benefit.

You should also know that in addition to survivor benefits, a surviving spouse or child may also be eligible to receive a special lump-sum death payment of $255.

>> Dependent parents: Benefits can also be paid to dependent parents who are age 62 and older. For parents to qualify, the deceased worker would have had to provide at least one-half of the parent’s financial support.

But be aware that Social Security has limits on how much a family can receive in monthly survivors’ benefits – usually 150% to 180% of the worker’s benefit.

Switching strategies

Social Security also provides surviving spouses and ex-spouses some nice strategies that can help boost their benefits. For example, if you’ve worked, you could take a reduced survivor benefit at age 60 and switch to your own retirement benefit based on your earnings history — between 62 and 70 — if it offers a higher payment.

Or, if you’re already receiving retirement benefits on your work record, you could switch to survivors benefits if they offer a higher payment. You cannot, however, receive both benefits.

You also need to know that if you collect a survivor benefit while working, and are under full retirement age, your benefits may be reduced depending on your earnings. See SSA.gov/pubs/EN-05-10069.pdf.

For more information on survivor benefits, visit SSA.gov/benefits/survivors.


Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.


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