If a loved one has died

This column continues last week's look at survivor benefits from the Social Security program.

To start with, how you sign up for survivor benefits depends on whether you're getting other Social Security benefits.



If You Aren't Getting Social Security Benefits

You should apply for survivor benefits promptly because, in some cases, benefits may not be retroactive. You can apply by telephone or at any Social Security office.

Social Security needs certain information to process your application. It's helpful if you have it handy when you apply, but don't delay applying if you don't have everything. Social Security will help you get the information you need.

Social Security needs either original documents or copies certified by the agency that issued them. The information includes:

    * Proof of death, either from a funeral home or a death certificate.

    * Your Social Security number, as well as the deceased's.

    * Your birth certificate.

    * Your marriage certificate, if you're a widow or widower.

    * Your divorce papers, if you're applying as a surviving divorced spouse.

    * Dependent children's Social Security numbers, if available.

    * Deceased worker's W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year.

    * The name of your bank and your account number so benefits can be directly deposited into your account.



If You're Already Getting Social Security Benefits

If you're getting benefits as a wife or husband on your spouse's record when he or she dies, you should report the death to Social Security and the agency will change your payments to survivor benefits. If Social Security needs more information, a representative will contact you.

If you're getting benefits on your own record, you'll need to complete an application to get survivor benefits. Call or visit Social Security and a representative will check to see if you can get more money as a widow or widower. The agency will need to see your spouse's death certificate to process your claim. Benefits for any children will automatically be changed to survivor benefits after the death is reported to Social Security. The agency will contact you if it needs more information.



How Much Will You Get?

The amount of your benefit is based on the earnings of the person who died. The more he or she paid into Social Security, the higher your benefits will be. The amount you will get is a percentage of the deceased's basic Social Security benefit. The percentage depends on your age and the type of benefit you are eligible for. Here are the most typical situations:

    * Widow or widower, age 65 or older — 100 percent.

    * Widow or widower age, 60-64 — about 71 percent to 94 percent.

    * Widow, any age, with a child under age 16 — 75 percent.

    * Children — 75 percent.



Maximum Family Benefits

There is a limit to the amount of money that can be paid to you and other family members each month. The limit varies, but is generally equal to about 150 percent to 180 percent of the deceased's benefit rate. If the sum of the benefits payable to the family members is greater than this limit, the benefits will be reduced proportionately.



Retirement Benefits For Widows and Widowers

If you are a widow or widower (including divorced widows or widowers) receiving benefits, you should remember that you can switch to your own retirement benefit as early as age 62. This assumes you're eligible and your retirement rate is higher than your widow(er) rate. In many cases, a widow(er) can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate at age 65. The rules are complicated and vary depending on your situation, so you should talk to a Social Security representative about the options available to you.



What If You Work?

If you get Social Security survivor benefits, your benefits may be reduced if your earnings exceed certain limits. To find out what the limits are this year and how earnings above those limits reduce your Social Security benefits, check How Work Affects Your Benefits (Publication No. 05-10069). There is no earnings limit once you reach age 70. Your earnings will reduce only your survivor benefits, not the benefits of other family members.



What If You Remarry?

Generally, you can't get survivor benefits if you remarry. But, remarriage after age 60 (50 if you are disabled) will not prevent benefits payments on your former spouse's record. And, at age 62 or older, you may get benefits on the record of your new spouse if they are higher.



For More Information

You can find the answers to many of the questions you may have about Social Security on its Web site (www.ssa.gov). The site includes publications you can download on all aspects of Social Security programs; forms you can use to request a variety of services; and an electronic newsletter that you can receive by e-mail.

You also can get information 24 hours a day, ever day, by calling SSA's toll-free number: (800) 772-1213. You can speak to a service representative between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on business days. The line is busiest early in the week and early in the month, so if your business can wait, it's best to call at other times. Whenever you call, have your Social Security number handy.

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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