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.