Q&A: A young mother died in a car accident. Can her widower get survivor benefits?

Dear Liz: My grandson’s wife, 22, was killed in a motor vehicle accident just after her birthday. My grandson, 26, was left with a 2-year-old and 9-month-old. Due to COVID-19, he was staying home with the children, and she was working at a fast-food restaurant. We thought there would be Social Security survivor benefits, but he has been denied because she did not have 10 quarters of payroll. Is there an appeal for this denial? She was too young to have the required quarters.

Answer: Given her age, the family could be out of luck if she only recently started working. But there is a special rule that applies if she was working at jobs that paid into Social Security for at least a year and a half before her death.

With survivor benefits, the length of time someone needs to work typically varies according to age. To generate survivor benefits, the number of years you need to work at a job that pays into Social Security is — at most — 10 years. Each quarter of work typically generates one credit, and no more than 40 credits are needed. The younger someone is when they die, the fewer credits are needed. People, however, generally need at least six credits, and only credits earned after someone turns 22 count toward the total.

But there’s an exception. Survivor benefits can be paid if the worker earned at least six credits in the three years before death. So if your grandson’s wife worked at least 18 months before her terribly premature death, survivor benefits could be paid to her minor children and to the surviving spouse who is caring for them, said William Meyer, chief executive of Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategy site.

The benefits would be based on her earnings history, so the amounts are unlikely to be substantial, Meyer noted. Still, something would be better than nothing.

All Social Security decisions can be appealed. If your grandson already filed an application and was denied, the denial letter would explain his appeal rights, Meyer said. If he just received a verbal denial, he should go ahead and file a formal application to start the process. If his wife had earnings that might not yet have been reported, he can provide her last pay stubs or W-2 forms when filing the application.

“With there being a concern about her having enough qualifying quarters, as well as low earnings, that could be pretty important,” Meyer said.

Q&A: Age minimum for survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 53 and Social Security is giving me a hold time for my widow support. What should I do?

Answer: The only thing you probably can do is wait.

Survivor benefits are normally only available once you turn 60. You can start as early as age 50 if you are disabled or at any age if you are caring for the deceased worker’s minor children.

Q&A: Survivor vs. retirement benefits

Dear Liz: I was 21 and my husband was 69 when we got married. He died in 1992 after 13 years of marriage. Our young son and I received survivor benefits for years. I got remarried in 2000 and divorced in 2008. When I reach my full retirement age of 66 years and 8 months, could I still claim survivor benefits from my first husband?

Answer: Yes, although you may want to start them sooner.

If your second marriage had lasted, you wouldn’t have been eligible for survivor benefits based on your first husband’s earnings record. Widows and widowers who remarry before age 60 aren’t eligible for survivor benefits.

Since that marriage ended, though, you were eligible to begin benefits at age 60. You are also free to remarry at 60 or later without losing those benefits.

Starting before your full retirement age for survivor benefits, however, means your check would be reduced and also subject to the earnings test, which reduces your benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($18,960 in 2021).

As mentioned in a previous column, your full retirement age for survivor benefits is different from your full retirement age for retirement benefits. Since you were born in 1958, your full retirement age for survivor benefits is four months earlier, or 66 years and 4 months.

In most cases, starting a Social Security benefit early locks you into a smaller check permanently. With survivor benefits, though, you also have the option of switching to your own retirement benefit later, if it’s larger. The ability to switch benefits is severely limited with Social Security, but survivor benefits remain the exception.

Being eligible for survivor benefits complicates claiming decisions, so consider using a more sophisticated claiming calculator such as Maximize My Social Security or Social Security Solutions to determine how best to file.

Q&A: A young widow seeks help with Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My husband died at 30, making me a widow at 29. I did receive Social Security survivor benefits for our underage children, but what, if anything, am I entitled to as his wife? At the time of his death, we were living separately, although we were still legally married.

Answer: The earliest a widow or widower can get survivor benefits is typically age 60, unless they are disabled, when survivor benefits can begin at 50. Starting benefits before their own full retirement age of 66 to 67 means accepting a reduced payment, but widows and widowers have the option of switching to their own retirement benefit later. (Retirement benefits begin at a reduced amount at age 62 and reach their maximum at age 70.)

Like other Social Security benefits, survivor benefits also are subject to the earnings test if you start them before full retirement age. The earnings test reduces your benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount, which in 2020 is $18,240.

You mentioned receiving survivor benefits for your children, but you probably also received benefits then. A spouse caring for the children of a deceased worker is entitled to survivor benefits until the youngest of those children turns 16. (A child’s survivor benefits can continue until age 18, or 19 if the child is still in high school, or indefinitely if they are disabled and the disability began before age 22.) Each family member can receive up to 75% of the deceased worker’s benefit, but there’s a maximum any household can receive based on one worker’s earnings record. The limit varies but is generally 150% to 180% of the worker’s benefit.

If you had been divorced rather than separated when he died, you would still have been entitled to survivor benefits as the caretaker of underage children, no matter how long the marriage lasted. You would only receive regular survivor benefits at 60, however, if your marriage had lasted at least 10 years.

Q&A: Survivor benefits and remarriage

Dear Liz: Regarding your recent advice to the person whose husband had just died. I could be completely wrong, but I think that in order to collect her late husband’s benefits when she turns 60, she can’t remarry.

Answer: You’re right that you’re wrong, but your confusion is understandable.

There are different types of Social Security benefits that people can receive based on the earnings of a spouse or ex-spouse. People whose spouses or ex-spouses have died may collect survivor benefits. Those benefits can continue if the survivor remarries at 60 or later.

The other type of benefit is a spousal benefit, which is based on a living person’s earnings record and which may be available to current spouses as well as ex-spouses. Someone who is divorced and receiving spousal benefits based on an ex’s earning record will lose those benefits if they remarry at any age.

Q&A: Death doesn’t take a financial holiday. Here’s a cautionary tale

Dear Liz: My daughter has two children, ages 2 and 4. Recently the children’s father took his own life. He was 27. The job he worked as long as I knew him paid him in cash, so he didn’t pay into Social Security. Does this mean the children cannot receive survivor benefits from Social Security?

Answer: If the father never worked at a job that paid into Social Security, your grandchildren — and your daughter — won’t qualify for the survivor benefits they could have received had he been paid legally rather than under the table.

Their one hope is if he had a previous job that did pay into Social Security.

At 27, he would have needed at least six quarters of coverage to trigger survivor benefits, says Bill Meyer, founder of Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategies site.

The older a person is, the more quarters are needed to qualify for benefits, but no one needs more than 40 quarters. The amount of earnings required for a quarter of coverage is $1,360 in 2019. Once you earn $5,440, you’ve earned your four quarters for the year.

If the father had earned those six quarters, his death would trigger survivor benefits for his children that typically last until age 18 (or until 19, if they are still in high school full time). Your daughter also would be entitled to benefits until the younger child turned 16, because she’s caring for the deceased person’s minor children.

It’s possible this young man was paid under the table because he was not able to work legally in the U.S. If that’s the case, he and his family wouldn’t qualify for Social Security benefits even if payroll taxes had been deducted. If he opted for cash because he or his employer didn’t want to pay taxes, though, that was a choice that had expensive repercussions for the people he left behind.

Q&A: Why this widow can’t get her late husband’s Social Security benefit

Dear Liz: My husband passed away 10 years ago at age 66. I called then to see if I could collect Social Security, because he was receiving benefits when he died. Our daughter was still a minor, so she was able to collect survivor benefits until she turned 18. I was told I couldn’t collect benefits as I made too much money. (I asked what too much money was and they said around $14,000 annually.)

I am now thinking about retiring at age 66 or 67. I am a mid-career public school teacher, so I’ve been told the “windfall elimination provision” will wipe out my Social Security benefit. I had my own business and worked previously but am told I can’t receive the Social Security benefits that my husband earned, nor will I most likely receive much, if anything, from the Social Security contributions I made. My friends tell me this can’t possibly be right.

Answer: The information you received about Social Security was generally entirely correct.

Let’s start with the windfall elimination provision. If you receive a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, any Social Security benefit you get may be reduced but not eliminated. You can read more about how the windfall elimination provision works and why it was created at the Social Security Administration website, www.ssa.gov.

A related provision, the government pension offset, can wipe out any spousal or survivor benefit you might have otherwise received.

Before those provisions were enacted, people who had generous government pensions from jobs that didn’t pay into Social Security could get the same or larger benefits than people who had paid into the system throughout their lives. Critics of the provisions, however, say they can leave some low-wage government workers worse off.

Another provision that can reduce or wipe out Social Security benefits is called the earnings test. Before full retirement age, which is currently 66, any Social Security check you receive would be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($17,640 in 2019). The amount was $14,100 from 2009 to 2011 and $14,640 in 2012, so that may have been why you remember the number $14,000.

So technically, you may have been eligible for a survivor’s benefit. Widows and widowers are eligible for survivor’s benefits starting at age 60, or age 50 if they’re disabled, or at any age if they’re caring for the dead person’s child who is under 16 or disabled. But it sounds as if any benefit you received would have been wiped out because of the earnings test.

Your situation is a perfect example of how complicated Social Security can get and how hard it can be to navigate the system without expert help. But even people with more straightforward situations can benefit from advice about how and when to file for benefits. Two of the better do-it-yourself options include Maximize My Social Security ($40) and Social Security Solutions ($19.95 for a basic version or $49.95 for one that allows you to compare scenarios). Or you can consult with a fee-only financial planner who has access to similar software and who can give you personalized advice.

Q&A: Claiming an ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question pertaining to divorced spousal Social Security benefits. Social Security told me years ago that I had to wait till my former husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. We divorced after a long-term marriage, and I remarried after age 60. Is this still true for remarried former spouses? My ex does collect Social Security, and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: The information you received was correct. You can’t get spousal benefits from your ex’s work record if you’re married to someone else. You can, however, get survivor benefits if your ex dies, as long as you remarried after you turned 60.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 63 and retired but have not started to collect my Social Security. My husband will be 67 in March. He started his Social Security at 62. Our plan is to wait until I am 70 to start my benefit, which would make my monthly amount significantly larger than his. If I predecease my husband, would he be able to collect my benefit instead of his own? If I started benefits now, our checks would be relatively close in size, although mine would be a bit higher than his current amount.

Answer: If you had started benefits already, your husband’s survivor benefit would equal what you were receiving when you died. Since you didn’t start early, though, your husband will get more.

If you should die before your full retirement age of 66 without starting retirement benefits, he would receive a survivor benefit equal to what you would have received at 66.

If you continue to delay benefits past age 66, your retirement — and thus his survivor benefit — would accrue the “delayed retirement credits” that boost your Social Security check by 8% annually between age 66 and age 70, when your benefit maxes out. In other words, if you die between 66 and 70 without starting benefits, he would get the delayed retirement credits and larger check you’d earned even if your checks hadn’t started.

As you can see, delaying the start of benefits is a great way to maximize what a survivor receives. It’s particularly important for the higher earner in a couple to put off filing for retirement benefits for as long as possible.

Q&A: Understanding Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I need a clarification because I’m getting conflicting answers from Social Security.

I know if you start Social Security benefits early, you get them at a reduced rate. When your spouse dies, is your survivor benefit reduced as well? My friend’s mother never worked, but started collecting spousal benefits at 62. Does she get reduced or full benefit when her husband dies?

Answer: Her survivor’s benefit is not reduced because she started spousal benefits early. It may be reduced, however, if her husband started retirement benefits early or if she starts survivor’s benefits before her own full retirement age.

Survivor’s checks are based on what the husband either was receiving or had earned. If the husband starts retirement benefits before his own full retirement age (currently 66), his checks are reduced, which also reduces what his widow could receive as a survivor.

If he delays retirement past 66, he earns 8% annual “delayed retirement credits” — an increase both would get.

If he dies before full retirement age without starting benefits, the survivor benefit would be based on what he would have received at full retirement age. If he dies after full retirement age without starting benefits, the survivor check is based on the larger amount he had earned (in other words, his benefit at full retirement age, plus any delayed retirement credits).

How much of the husband’s benefit his widow would get depends on when she starts claiming her survivor’s benefit.

If she starts at the earliest possible age of 60 (or 50 if she’s disabled, or any age if there are children under 16), her survivor’s benefit will be reduced to reflect the early start.

If she waits until her full retirement age, by contrast, the survivor’s benefit would be equal to what her husband was receiving or had earned. Waiting to start survivor benefits until after her full retirement age doesn’t increase her check, however.