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How Do Social Security Survivor Benefits Work?

When it comes to retirement in the United States, researchers don’t paint a pretty picture. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, the retirement savings deficit totals as much as $14 trillion.

For women, the gap between what’s needed to afford more than the essentials in retirement and what’s actually in hand is especially wide. The death of a spouse or a divorce, in particular, can send women into a financial nose dive if they had relied on their spouse’s income for support.

The good news is that the Social Security Administration offers a lifeline, of sorts, for widows and widowers. In April 2017, more than 4 million widows or widowers took advantage of the federal program’s survivor’s benefit, pulling in an average of just under $1,000 per month.

That benefit is a big boon for women, who are more likely to work part-time jobs without access to a retirement plan, according the the U.S. Department of Labor. They also often work fewer years, taking time out to care for children or aging parents, and save less toward retirement. About 14 percent of women take advantage of survivor benefits, compared to less than 1 percent of men, according to the Social Security Administration.

But, it can be difficult to navigate through the rules, regulations and paperwork required to draw those survivor benefits. Still, it’s worth the effort. Accessing survivor benefits can make a big difference in the quality of life for widows.

Four things to know about Social Security survivor benefits:

1. What is it?

Survivor benefits are Social Security payments made to a widow or widower that are based on their deceased spouse’s earning record, according to the Social Security Administration. Because of their work records, men usually collect a higher monthly benefit than women -- about $1,500 for retired men and about $1,170 for retired women in 2014.

2. Who is eligible?

Widows, widowers and, in some cases, divorced people, can seek the benefits. Here’s how it breaks down, according to the Social Security Administration:

  • Starting at age 60 or older, you can get your deceased spouse’s benefits.
  • Starting at age 50, if you’re disabled and widowed, you can draw benefits.
  • If you have children and your spouse has died, you could also access a widow’s benefit, regardless of your age, if you have a child who is younger than 16 or is disabled in your care.
  • If you divorced after being married for at least 10 years, you could also get benefits based on the earnings of your ex-spouse if, for instance, you didn’t remarry, are age 62 or older and your ex-spouse is eligible for Social Security.

3. How much will you get?

Benefits vary widely depending on age and how much money your deceased spouse was eligible for when he died. A widow at full retirement age, which varies depending on when a person was born, or older is eligible for 100 percent of the benefit amount. A widow at age 60 to full retirement age could get 71.5 percent to 99 percent. A widow with children under age 16 could get 75 percent. The Social Security Administration has all of the details on its website.

4. What happens if you remarry?

It depends on your age. If you say “I do” again before age 60 -- or 50 if you are disabled -- then you aren’t entitled to widow’s benefits as long as you stay married. But, if you get married after your 60th birthday, or 50th birthday if you’re disabled, then you could keep getting Social Security benefits based on your deceased spouse’s work history.

Not sure if you qualify for survivor benefits? It’s best to contact your local Social Security office for more information to find out if you’re eligible.

Consumer Education Services, Inc. (CESI) is a non-profit committed to empowering and inspiring consumers nationwide to make wise financial decisions and live debt free. Speak with a certified counselor for a free debt analysis today.

 

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