Social Security casts lifeline
- By Milt x_Zall
- Jun 01, 2001
Many people think of Social Security as a retirement program. But retirement
benefits are just one part of the Social Security program. Some of the Social
Security taxes you pay go toward survivor insurance. In fact, the value
of the survivor insurance you have under Social Security is probably more
than the value of your individual life insurance.
When someone who has worked and paid into Social Security dies, survivor
benefits can be paid to certain family members, including widows or widowers
(and divorced widows or widowers), children and dependent parents.
You, along with millions of other people, earn survivor's insurance
by working and paying Social Security taxes. Right now, 98 out of every
100 children could get benefits if a working parent should die. In fact,
Social Security pays more benefits to children than any other federal program.
How You Earn Survivor Benefits
When you die, certain members of your family may be eligible for survivor
benefits if you worked, paid Social Security taxes and earned enough "credits."
You can earn a maximum of four credits each year. The number of credits
you need depends on your age when you die. The younger a person is, the
fewer credits he or she needs to have family members be eligible for survivor
benefits. But nobody needs more than 40 credits (10 years of work) to be
eligible for any Social Security benefits.
Under a special rule, benefits can be paid to your children and your
spouse who is caring for the children even if you don't have the number
of credits needed. They can get benefits if you have credit for one and
one half years of work in the three years just before your death.
Who Can Get Survivors Benefits?
When you die, Social Security survivor benefits can be paid to your:
* Widow or widower. Those 65 or older (if born before 1940) are eligible
for full benefits; reduced benefits can be collected as early as age 60.
The age for receiving full benefits gradually increases for people born
after 1939 until it reaches age 67 for people born in 1962 and later. A
disabled widow or widower can get benefits at age 50 to 60. The surviving
spouse's benefits may be reduced if he or she also receives a Civil Service
Retirement System pension or a pension from a job where Social Security
taxes were not withheld. A widow or widower can receive benefits at any
age if she or he takes care of your child who is under 16 or disabled and
* Unmarried children under 18 (or up to age 19 if they are attending
elementary or secondary school full time). Your child can get benefits at
any age if he or she was disabled before age 22 and remains disabled. Under
certain circumstances, benefits also can be paid to your stepchildren, grandchildren,
adopted children or dependent parents at 62 or older.
Special One-Time Death Benefit
There is a special one-time payment of $255 that can be made when you
die if you have enough work "credits." This payment can be made only to
your spouse or minor children if they meet certain requirements.
Benefits for Surviving Divorced Spouses
If you've been divorced, your former wife or husband can get benefits
under the same circumstances as your widow or widower if your marriage lasted
10 years or more. Your former spouse, however, does not have to meet the
length-of-marriage rule if she or he is caring for your child who is under
16 or disabled and who is also getting benefits on your Social Security
record. The child must be your former spouse's natural or legally adopted
Benefits paid to a surviving divorced spouse who is age 60 or older
(age 50 to 60 if disabled) will not affect the benefit rates for other survivors
How Much Are Benefits?
How much your family can get from Social Security depends on your average
lifetime earnings. That means the higher your earnings, the higher their
benefits will be.
If you would like to get an estimate of the Social Security survivors'
benefits that could be paid to your family, request a Social Security Statement Form SSA-7004 (formerly known as a Request for
Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement). Within four to six weeks
after you complete and return the form to the Social Security Administration,
you will receive a statement showing an estimate of survivor benefits that
could be paid, as well as an estimate of retirement and disability benefits
and other important information. There's no charge for this service.
Zall, Bureaucratus columnist and a retired federal employee, is a freelance
writer based in Silver Spring, Md. He specializes in taxes, investing, business
and government workplace issues. He is a certified internal auditor and
a registered investment adviser. He can be reached at [email protected].