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Survivor Benefits – A Brief Overview and Significance in Retirement Plans

survivor benefits

What are survivor benefits?

Survivor benefits are one of 4 categories of Social Security benefits that can help employees, and retirees’ families manage financial difficulties. Widows and widowers, divorced spouses, and kids are often eligible beneficiaries.

Same-sex couples now have access to Social Security payments because of the 2015 Supreme Court decision (Obergefell v. Hodges)

Survivor Benefits Beneficiary Types

The following annuitants will receive annuities every month:

Widows and Widowers Who Qualify

A widow(er)-You are 60 years old or older, and were married to the employee at the time of their death.

Remarried Widow(er) –You are 60 or older and were remarried to the employee at the time of their death.

Surviving Divorced Spouse -You are 60 or older, and were married to the employee for at least ten years before getting divorced.

Disabled Widow(er) –You are between 50 and 59, and should be a widow(er). Remarried or divorced annuitants with a permanent disability also belong to this category.

You must have been married to the employee for at least 9 months before the employee’s death. The marriage requirements to the employee, and any subsequent remarriages, are different from each other.

Unless the spouse receives a greater retirement benefit than the survivor benefit, these benefits remain payable for life. Thus, the beneficiaries are eligible for only one of these two types of Social Security payments, whichever is bigger.

Young parents

You might be a young parent, caring for the deceased employee’s minor (age18 or under) or disabled child (before age 22). The child’s age limit is 16 if you are a divorced or remarried young parent.

You must be married, and fulfill all the requirements to have a child in your care. In addition, a child in foster care must be eligible for a child’s annuity.

The young parents will stop receiving payments if:

The surviving spouse or ex-spouse no longer has a kid under the age of 16, or the kid is disabled and eligible to get the benefits based on the late worker’s earnings record.

If the parent remarries. However, if the marriage is to someone who gets specific Social Security payments, some exclusions will be.

Widow’s or widower’s benefits become available, and they obtain a greater retirement benefit than any survivor benefit.


You must be the deceased employee’s biological child, adopted child, or step-child. You should also be unmarried and under 18 to qualify for this sort of annuity.

Disabled child – One must be unmarried, over an 18-year-old child who is chronically disabled before 22.

Grandchild – Someone who is an unmarried, dependent grandchild can fulfill the annuity eligibility conditions for a child. Parents of the grandchild must be deceased, disabled, or qualify for exclusions.

Benefits for surviving children usually end when they reach the age of 18. If the child is a full-time student in elementary or secondary school, benefits can be continued until age 19 and 2 months. Benefits can be continued indefinitely if the child becomes disabled before the age of 22.


The person must be an unmarried, qualified child of a deceased employee. They must also be at least 18 years old and enrolled full-time in an elementary, secondary, or approved home-schooling program.

An individual is only responsible until they reach 19 or the end of the current school year.

Older Parents

The deceased employee’s parent should be at least 60 years old and must have relied on the employee for at least half of their financial support.

The worker’s parents are eligible for survivor payments, either individually or as a pair.

These benefits are payable for life, much as widows and widowers, unless the parent remarries, or starts collecting a retirement benefit that exceeds the survivor benefit.

If the deceased employee had a surviving widow(er), or divorced partner, or a child who can get an annuity in the future, the parent would get only the tier I annuity. The Social Security Administration will pay the amount.

The following are examples of one-time death benefits:

Lump-Sum Death Payment (LSDP)

If no survivor is immediately eligible for a monthly annuity after the employee’s death, specified survivors will receive a lump-sum death benefit or payment (LSDP).

If the employee did not fulfill 10 years of employment before 1975, they would get only a lump sum of $255. The employee’s widow(er) can also receive the money if they live in the same household.

If the employee completed less than 10 years of employment but rendered 5 years after 1995, they had to meet the insured status standards of Social Security. This way, they can get the lump sum amount.

The living-with widow will get the total amount, if the employee has a work history of 10 years before 1975.

If no widow(er) exists, the funeral home or the person who bears the funeral expenses will get the entire amount.

Suppose a widow(er) is qualified for monthly benefits at the moment of the employee’s death. But the widow(er) had additional earnings deductions that stopped annuity payments, or due to other reasons, did not get monthly benefits as much as the lump sum, starting from the month of the employee’s death.

In that case, the difference between the lump-sum benefit and monthly benefits will be deducted from the lump sum benefit.

Lump-Sum Payment (Residual)

Under certain conditions, the country’s railroad workers are paid a residual lump-sum death benefit by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board under the railroad retirement system. This way, the organization ensures that a railroad family gets as many benefits as the employee contributed in railroad retirement taxes prior to 1975.

After subtracting any previously paid benefits based on the employee’s employment, this benefit effectively refunds an employee’s pre-1975 railroad retirement taxes.

Things to remember:

If you are already receiving Social Security benefits based on your employment record, survivor benefits will only be paid if they are greater than your own payment.

Social Security will pay the highest of the two benefit amounts.

Survivor benefits are not available to widowed spouses or former spouses who remarry before reaching 60 (50 if disabled). If the later marriage ends, eligibility continues. If the person remarries at age 60 or later, it has no impact on your eligibility (50 or older if disabled).

Except for the remarriage concern, and the age restrictions for kids, survivor payments have no time limit and are payable forever.

Survivor benefits differ from the lump-sum death benefits. The death benefit is a one-time payment of $255 to the relatives of a deceased beneficiary. To get this benefit, one must complete an application within two years of the person’s death (Call Social Security at 800-772-1213 or visit the local office).

How To Calculate Survivor Benefits?

To begin, you must work for a set number of years and accumulate the required amount of “credits” each year. This way, your loved ones will be eligible for benefits. For example, you will receive one credit for every $1,470 you make in 2021, up to a maximum of $5,880, for a total of four credits per year.

Your age determines the total credits needed for family members to qualify for survivor benefits at the time of death. The younger you are, the fewer credits you require. But you will never require more than 40 credits. Most people must work and pay Social Security taxes for at least 10 years to reach the needed credit.

If your death leaves a spouse with dependent offspring, a unique clause allows benefits to be given to them. But for that, you need to earn 6 credits (about 1.5 years) or more within the three calendar years before your death.

The amount of survivor benefits that your family would get is determined by your average lifetime income. So the more you earn, the larger the benefit, up to a specific amount.

Benefit payments are calculated considering how much the deceased employee might have earned if they had lived until full retirement age.

Things to remember:

However, any benefits provided to the surviving family members will be based on the reduced amount if you began receiving benefits earlier than your full or “normal”; retirement age. As a result, the surviving spouse will get a lower payout.

Apart from that, the age at which your spouse or dependents receive benefits impacts the amount they get.

Calculate the survivor’s benefit based on the deceased person’s earnings. The benefits will be greater if you pay more into Social Security. The amount a person receives each month is based on a portion of the deceased’s primary Social Security benefit. It is based on age and the kind of benefit a person would qualify for.

Survivors may qualify for the below-given benefits:

  • 100% of the deceased worker’s benefit amount if the widow or widower is of full retirement age or older. Widow or widower, 60 years old (full retirement age), receives 71.5% to 99% of the deceased worker’s basic pay.
  • A disabled widow or widower, aged 50 to 59 will qualify for a 71.5% benefit. Any widow or widower, regardless of age, caring for a child under 16 will qualify for 75%. A kid under the age of 18 (age19 if still in elementary, or secondary school) or more with a disability may qualify for 75% benefits.
  • A deceased worker’s dependent parent(s) might receive 82.5% for one surviving parent and 75% for each of the two surviving parents. The percentages for a divorced spouse who survives would be the same as before. The quantity of money that family members can receive each month is limited. The limit varies, but it often ranges from 150% to 180% of the base benefit rate.

What Is the Process for Applying for Survivor Benefits?

It is not possible to apply for survivor benefits online due to the broad range of individual situations. You can, however, apply for social security by phone or by making an appointment at your local Social Security office. Social Security Administration website always has the most up-to-date requirements and contact information.

When applying for survivor benefits, you must produce certain documents, such as a death certificate, marriage certificate, evidence of citizenship, or a divorce decision. So gathering them ahead of time will speed up the process.

When someone dies, you should notify the authorities right away. However, you can’t register a death or apply for survivor benefits through the internet.

In the vast majority of cases, the funeral home Security will notify the Social Security Administration of a person’s death. If you want the funeral home to make the report, give them the deceased person’s Social Security number.

Call 1-800-772-1213 to report a death or to apply for benefits (TTY 1-800-325-0778). You can talk to a Social Security representative, from Monday through Friday – 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Using the Social Security Office Locator, and checking Social Security Office Information, one may get the local office phone number. In addition, people can reach local offices using the toll-free “Office” number.

Things to remember:

If you are not receiving benefits, you should file for survivor benefits as soon as possible, as benefits may not be retroactive in some situations. If you are receiving benefits, based on the record of your spouse or parent, you won’t need to claim survivor benefits.

After the Social Security Administration receives the death certificate, they’ll convert any monthly benefits to survivor benefits. They also automate the payment of the Special Lump-Sum Death Payment.

You must apply for survivor benefits if they are receiving retirement or disability benefits on their own account. The Social Security Administration will decide if he or she is eligible for a higher payment, being a widow or widower.

Documents you need to apply.

Don’t wait to apply for Social Security benefits if you don’t have all the required documentation. In many circumstances, your local Social Security office can contact your state Bureau of Vital Statistics and validate your information online, absolutely free of cost.

Significance of Survivor Benefits in Private Retirement Plans

Women tend to rely on survivor benefits since they earn less on average than men. This means they have fewer retirement funds. Women also survive longer than men, which means their retirement savings must endure longer as well.

To put it another way, women make less and require more. Survivor benefits are not only provided by the Social Security Administration. Also by Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), the military retirement system, and retirement plans for government employees.

Here, we will discuss how survivor benefits are provided in various types of retirement plans. For example, private employers, and/or unions provide these benefits to their employees. It also includes helpful hints for safeguarding your survivor benefits.

Survivor Benefits in 401(k), 403(b), and Other Retirement plans

The 401(k) is one of the most well-known retirement plans that an employer sponsors.

401(k)s are a part of a bigger category of retirement plans, called Defined Contribution Plans. The Defined Contribution Plans also include 403(b) plans, profit-sharing plans, money-purchase programs, as well as other types of plans. When it comes to survivor benefits, these plans are pretty similar.

When the employee chooses a defined contribution plan, they create their own account. Then, while they are working, the firm contributes the money into their account directly. According to the plan’s regulations, the employee and/or the company may contribute money to the account each pay period.

The contribution will produce additional income for the employee. When the person reaches retirement age, they can start withdrawing the funds.

If the employee dies, the beneficiary receives the survivor benefits, based on the balance in the account at the time of death. There is no survivor benefit if the person withdraws all the money from the account before death. The retirement plan will require employees to fill out a beneficiary designation form. The form indicates who will get the survivor benefits if some funds remain after the employee’s death.

If the participant is married, the spouse automatically becomes the survivor benefit beneficiary. The spouse may also assign a different beneficiary by requesting the plan holder. This agreement must be in writing, and the spouse must have it notarized or sign it in front of the retirement plan’s officials. Then, the beneficiary has to submit all the documents to the retirement plan.

If the participant is unmarried, or if the participant’s spouse doesn’t want to become the beneficiary, the participant may assign another beneficiary. For example, the employee may assign a child, another close relative, a friend, or a charity as a beneficiary.

How to Protect Survivor Benefits in Defined Contribution Retirement Plans

Employees in the plan can take some or all of the money out of the account as a cash dividend when they reach 59.5. After that, they’ll just have to pay tax on the money they withdraw.

Participants can also transfer funds or investments to an individual retirement account or IRA to withdraw money from the account. As a result, they can avoid paying the tax.

Spousal protections in IRAs are less extensive than in employer-sponsored plans.

For example, the spouse must agree to a different beneficiary based on state rules in all the employer-sponsored plans in the United States.

Participants in the plan can also pull money out of the account before they reach 59.5, but they must face a 10% penalty on top of income tax. If a participant is experiencing money problems, specific plans will let them pull money out early without incurring a penalty.

Some plans also allow members to take loans out of their plans and reimburse them, but failing to do so may result in a penalty.

Things to remember:

Some companies will have different rules with their employees and accounts. But generally, the employee does not require spousal consent to take out loans by cashing out accounts when they consider leaving the job, covered by the plan. Instead, the employee may roll finances over into an IRA or another retirement plan.

This means that couples should agree to take all the decisions regarding retirement benefits together. Because of many employees causing retirement account shrinkage — this rule has changed with many employers. An employee participant must understand that withdrawing funds from the retirement account may affect the spouse.

In other situations, a spouse may not have this type of discussion with the plan participant. For example, a state family law court — or an employer — might assist by reserving a portion of the retirement payout for the spouse.

In the case of divorce, legal separation, or other issues arising under state family law, a family court has this power.

Frequently asked questions about survivor benefits and retirement.

1. What is the definition of a full survivor benefit?

The maximum survivor benefit available under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) is 55% of your unreduced yearly benefit. The maximum survivor benefit available under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) is 50% of your unreduced yearly benefit.

2. When will my spouse’s surviving benefits end?

Unless your spouse remarries before the age of 55, a surviving spouse will receive monthly annuity payments for life. If you and your spouse were married for at least 30 years, your spouse could keep receiving benefits if you remarry before the age of 55 after January 1, 1995.

3. Will my family be able to collect all my health insurance benefits if I die?

Your spouse and qualifying dependents can keep your health insurance and also the monthly survivor benefit. But for that, the employee must enroll in a self and family plan before their death.

Your spouse and eligible family members will have a one-time option to enroll in private health coverage with the insurance provider if a monthly benefit is not payable.

4. Will my heirs receive the increased cost-of-living?

Yes, Congress votes to provide a cost-of-living increase to survivors (COLA).

5. Will my employment income affect my survivor annuity?

Your spousal survivor annuity will remain intact. Your income from the government or any other employer will not affect it.

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