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Taking Care of Mom and Dad: Death and Widow(er) Benefits

In 2002, there were about 5 million widows and widowers receiving Social Security benefits based on their deceased spouse's earnings record. And, for many of those survivors, particularly aged women, those benefits kept them out of poverty. If one of your parents is deceased, the other may already be receiving these benefits.

A widow or widower who has not remarried can receive full benefits at full retirement age or older or reduced benefits as early as age 60. As I mentioned before, disabled widows or widowers can begin receiving benefits as early as age 50.

But remember that, if your living parent also receives a pension based on work not covered by Social Security -- such as government or foreign work -- his or her Social Security benefit on your deceased parent's record may be affected.

If your parents are divorced but were married for 10 years or more, then when one dies the other can qualify for survivor's benefits under Social Security -- so long as that parent has not remarried. These benefits do not affect any other benefits to other survivors.

How much your family receives in benefits depends on your deceased parent's average lifetime earnings. The higher the earnings, the higher the benefits. Social Security calculates a basic amount as if the deceased had reached full retirement age at the time of death. (If the person already received benefits at the time of death, survivor benefits are based on that amount.)

The following are examples of benefit payments:

  • widow or widower, full retirement age or older -- 100 percent of the basic amount;
  • widow or widower, age 60 to full retirement age -- 71½ to 94 percent;
  • disabled widow, age 50 through 59 -- 71½ percent;
  • widow, any age, caring for a child under age 16 -- 75 percent.
  • a child under 18 (19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or disabled -- 75 percent.

Percentages for a surviving divorced widow or widower would be the same as above.

There is also a maximum amount that your family can receive together; the limit varies, but is generally equal to about 150 to 180 percent of the deceased's basic benefit rate. If the sum of the benefits payable to the family members is greater than this limit, the benefits will be reduced proportionately. (Any benefits paid to the surviving divorced widow or widower won't count toward this maximum amount.)

There also may be a special lump-sum death payment. If the deceased earned enough credits, there is a special lump-sum benefit payment of $255 that can be paid to certain family members upon death. This payment can be made only to the surviving spouse or minor children if they meet certain requirements.

If you are curious as to how much these benefits amount to if your mom or dad were to die today, you can use the Benefits Calculator on the Social Security Web site to estimate.

If the surviving parent remarries, there are even more rules to follow. If your surviving parent remarries before age 60, she or he cannot receive widow or widower benefits on your dead parent's Social Security record as long as that marriage remains in effect. If your surviving parent remarries after age 60, she or he will continue to receive benefits on your deceased parent's record. However, if your surviving parent's current spouse is a Social Security beneficiary, she or he may want to apply for a benefit on the spouse's record if it would be a higher amount. She or he cannot get both benefits.

If your surviving parent works while getting survivors benefits and is under full retirement age, the survivor benefits may be reduced if his or her earnings exceed the annual earnings limits I mentioned earlier.

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