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Social Security - Questions From and About Widows

Apr 16, 2010

Question: My wife and I are both in our 70s and we each get our own Social Security benefit. I'm confused about what she would be due if I die. Can you help?

Answer: First, she'd be due that miserly one-time $255 Social Security death benefit. Frequent readers know I've often written about this embarrassing pittance the government doles out to the spouse of someone who has died. I say it should be raised (to maybe $2,500) or simply eliminated. But no one listens to me. So again, your wife would get a check for $255.

She would also receive a widow's supplement from your Social Security account IF her own benefit is less than yours. As a general rule, the supplement would take her total benefits up to whatever amount you were getting when you died. For example, let's say you are collecting $2,000 per month, and your wife gets $1,500 per month from her own retirement account. If you die, she'd keep receiving her $1,500 payment, but she'd start getting an extra $500 in widow's benefits to take her up to your $2,000 per month level.

One other little bit of Social Security business: She'd have to return any Social Security benefits deposited to your bank account for the month you die -- and any subsequent months. In other words, if you die on Aug. 15, she'd have to return the Social Security benefit sent on your behalf in September (which is the August payment). Many times this won't be an issue because the Social Security check isn't even given once the government knows you've died, or the bank automatically returns the funds to the government if the Social Security check was authorized before the government learned of your death. But if your check falls through one of those cracks, it's your wife's job to return it.

No matter how the money gets returned, the bad news is that even though you were alive half of the month, the entire month's payment has to be sent back. The good news is that your wife would be due that widow's supplement for the entire month of August, even though she was a widow for only half the month.

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Question: My husband died several years ago and I received the $255 death benefit. I never received any monthly widow's benefits because my own Social Security was more than my husband's rate. Now I've learned that when I die, my children won't get the $255 death benefit. Is this true?

Answer: Yes, it's true. A number of years ago, in an attempt to save a few nickels for the Social Security trust funds, Congress restricted the payment of the death benefit to "a spouse who was living with the deceased when he or she died." When your husband died, there was a "living with spouse" (you), and that's why you got the $255 check. But when you die, you will leave behind no spouse, so there is no death benefit due.

Question: In a past column, you said a widow gets 100 percent of her husband's Social Security. I don't receive anywhere near that. How do I get the full 100-percent rate?

Answer: I usually say a widow can get "up to" 100 percent of her husband's Social Security benefit. How much she actually receives depends on several factors, primarily her age when she started getting widow's benefits. If those benefits start before age 66, they are permanently reduced roughly one-half of 1 percent for each month a check is paid before that magic "full Social Security age." For example, at age 60 -- the earliest that widows can receive benefits -- she'd get about a 70 percent rate. At age 62, it would be about 82 percent.

Question: I am getting widow's benefits from my deceased husband's account. I am due to inherit a substantial amount of money from my sister's estate. I was told that because the amount is more than $14,000, my Social Security benefits will be suspended when I claim the inheritance. How long will that suspension last?

Answer: Your Social Security benefits will not be suspended. The $14,000 limit (it's actually $14,160) applies only to earned income. In other words: If you were working and earning more than $14,160, and if you were under age 66, you might lose some or all of your widow's benefits. But the money you'll get from your sister's estate is not "earned" income. So, you could inherit a million dollars and you will still be eligible for Social Security benefits.

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