I wrote a column about a year ago based on an email from an 85-year-old woman whose husband of 60 years was near death. She was asking me how to deal with Social Security matters after he passed away. That column struck a chord with many people. For example, many readers told me they were going to keep a copy of that column in their records for future reference.
But I’ve gotten many emails since from other readers who must have missed that column because they are asking me the same kinds of questions. So today, I thought I would once again review the Social Security-related steps that need to be taken when a loved one dies.
The first issue I will cover is what to do with the final Social Security check for the deceased. And to do so, I must start out making two points.
First, Social Security checks are paid one month behind. So, for example, the check you get in August is the benefit payment for July.
Second, Social Security benefits have never been prorated. I’ve explained before how this lack of proration can help out when someone first starts getting Social Security. For example, if you took benefits at age 66 and you turned 66 on June 28, you would get a check for the whole month of June, even though you are only 66 for three days of the month. On the other hand, if your spouse dies on June 28, you would not be due the proceeds of that June Social Security check even though he or she was alive for 28 days of the month.
But there is a flip side to that perceived drawback to Social Security’s proration rules. And it could be good news for any survivors who are due benefits on the deceased’s Social Security account. Let’s say that Bill died on June 28. If his wife, Sarah, was due widow’s benefits, she would be paid those benefits for the whole month of June, even though she was a widow for only three days of the month.
So, to repeat, when someone dies, the Social Security check for the month of death must be returned. But that’s only if you get the check in the first place.
I added that qualifier because there is a very good chance the check won’t even show up in the deceased’s bank account. As you may have heard, there are all kinds of computer-matching operations that go on between various government agencies and banks. So if the Treasury Department learns of a person’s death in time, they won’t even issue the Social Security benefit. Or, if the check was issued, the bank will likely intercept the payment and return it to the government before it even hits the deceased’s checking account. In other words, you usually don’t have to worry about returning any Social Security checks. It’s almost always done for you.
There can be a little twist to this scenario though. For example, let’s say that Henry died on July 2. And let’s further say that his Social Security check was normally sent to him on the third of each month. In other words, Henry died just before his Social Security check was deposited into his bank account. Because he was alive the whole month of June, that means he was due the money from that June check. And now his widow or his estate is due that money. So that June Social Security benefit would have to be returned to the Social Security Administration. Then it will be reissued to the widow or to the estate. (There is a form that needs to be filled out to get that to happen. Talk to an SSA rep about that.)
So far, I’ve been talking about dealing with the last Social Security check that was sent to the deceased. Now let’s talk about getting any Social Security survivor benefits that might be due.
Unless they are due higher benefits on their own Social Security accounts, widows and widowers are due full benefits at their full retirement age or reduced benefits as early as age 60 if they are not working. But the most common scenario involves couples who were both getting Social Security benefits at the time of death of one of the spouses. The easiest way to explain what happens is with examples.
Fred died. He was getting Social Security retirement benefits. And his wife, Wilma, was getting just a spousal benefit. In other words, she didn’t have enough work credits to get her own Social Security benefit. In this case, the process is pretty simple. No widow’s application is required. Wilma simply notifies the SSA of Fred’s death and they just push a few buttons to switch her from wife’s benefits to widow’s benefits. As part of the process, she may have to provide a copy of the death certificate. I say “may have to provide” because there is a chance the SSA will already have some proof of death in their files. Assuming Wilma was over “full retirement age,” she will just start getting whatever Fred was getting at the time of death. (But if he started his Social Security at age 62, Wilma will actually get a little more. Fred would have been getting a rate equal to 75 percent of his full benefit, and Wilma is guaranteed to get at least 82 percent of his full benefit.)
If Wilma was getting her own retirement benefit that was less than Fred’s rate, she will get bumped up to that higher amount. And she would have to file an application to get those widow’s benefits. It’s really not very hard. There is one little twist. Widow’s claims can’t be filed online. So Wilma would have to contact the SSA at 800-772-1213 to file her claim over the phone. In addition to a death certificate, Wilma may also have to provide a copy of her marriage certificate.
There is also the matter of the $255 death benefit. I’m always embarrassed talking about this one-time payment because it is so miserly. There is a long history to this benefit I’ve discussed many times in this column, so I won’t rehash it here today. Suffice it to say, the rate has been set at the $255 level for about 50 years now. A half-century ago, it might have gone a long way towards paying for a funeral. Today, it barely covers the cost of the flowers draping the casket. But no matter how stingy it is, the benefit is still there. However, a number of years ago, Congress passed a law saying it can only be paid to a widow or widower who was living with the deceased. So if someone dies and there is no spouse, the $255 death benefit can’t be paid.