Social Security casts lifeline

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 gets benefits.

* 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 child.

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 getting benefits.



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 miltzall@starpower.net.

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