How to Handle Social Security Benefits After Someone Dies

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Navigating through the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) system can be a tricky and complicated undertaking, even under the best of circumstances. It can feel even more daunting when you’ve recently gone through the trauma of losing a loved one.

There are many reasons why you may need to get in touch with the Social Security Administration after a family member has passed away. If they were collecting Social Security benefits, you must notify them so you don’t keep receiving their Social Security after death. 

Jump ahead to these sections: 

There have been instances of people quietly collecting their late partner's Social Security after death, thinking no one will be the wiser. But while the administration is large and unwieldy, it can catch up. There are better (and legal!) ways to go about collecting Social Security death benefits that you’re entitled to.

Even if a person in your family wasn’t collecting Social Security benefits at the time they died, you may still qualify for some type of SSA benefit. You’ll want to consider this if you’re a surviving parent, spouse, or child.

The criteria varies from person to person, so don’t be afraid to deal with Social Security directly. They’ll be able to help you figure out what you’re entitled to and how to collect. In the meantime, you can follow the guide below.

Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, it's tough to handle both the emotional and technical aspects of their unfinished business without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.

What to Do After a Beneficiary Dies

Before you claim benefits, you'll need to report the death to the SSA and see if you're eligible for survivor benefits. The SSA makes this a simple process to complete so you can get started right away. 

Report the death to the Social Security Administration

If your departed loved one was collecting Social Security benefits, you need to get in touch with Social Security right away. In most cases, the funeral home will notify the SSA. You’ll have to tell the funeral home the social security number of your deceased loved one, and they’ll handle it from there.  

But, if they don’t offer that service or you’re not using a funeral home, you’ll need to do it yourself. Unfortunately, you cannot report a death online. You’ll have to call the Social Security Administration to make a death notification at 1-800-772-1213. 

If you’re deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech impairment and you have a TTY device, you can get in touch through their designated TTY line at 1-800-325-0778. Representatives are usually able to speak to you Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

You can also visit your local Social Security office in person if you prefer not to deal with the situation over the phone. You don’t need an appointment, but if you call ahead and schedule one, it’ll reduce your waiting time.

Receive the last benefits check and stop future payments

Even if the funeral home was quick in notifying the SSA about the death, a benefits check might still come in the mail.  

Once a person has died, they’re no longer eligible for benefits. Also, you’ll want to note that SSA benefits are backdated, meaning a benefits check received in June covers July benefits. If someone dies before the end of the month, they do not qualify for any part of that month’s payments.

For example, if they die on April 10 after their benefits check arrived and was already cashed, then the April check was their last payment. If a check still arrives for May, don’t cash it. Instead, return it to the Social Security Administration.

But if they died before the benefits check arrived, you’ll still be able to cash the check sent for that month. If they receive a check in June for May’s benefits, you shouldn’t cash that check. You must return the check to the SSA.

If the deceased receives checks that they aren’t qualified to cash after death, you must return the check to the SSA as soon as possible. If benefit funds were usually received by direct deposit, contact the bank or financial institution. You’ll also want to request that any additional funds be blocked or returned.  

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How Social Security Survivor Benefits Work

You earn Social Security benefits through working during your lifetime. Your eligibility and the amount of money you receive will depend on the number of credits you accumulate. You’ll receive one credit for every $1,360 earned from wages or self-employment income. So, if you make $5,440 in one year, you’ll get four credits.

To receive Social Security benefits, you’ll need to have earned at least 40 credits in your lifetime. This means that full- and part-time workers who earn $5,440 or more per year over ten years will eventually earn 40 credits.

The number of credits also determines how much of a benefit you’ll receive. So the more a person pays into Social Security, the bigger the benefits checks and the bigger the survivor benefits check may be.

Survivor eligibility

When somebody dies, relatives may be eligible to receive the deceased’s benefits. Here’s who’s usually eligible.

For widows

  • Widows and widowers can receive full survivor benefits at full retirement age and can become eligible for reduced benefits as early as age 60
  • If a widow or widower is disabled, they can receive benefits as early as age 50

If your spouse was already collecting Social Security at the time of their passing, those benefits will automatically convert to survivor benefits once the SSA receives the death notification.

For children

  • Unmarried children under the age of 18
  • Unmarried children up to age 19 if they’re full-time students
  • Children who became permanently or long-term disabled before the age of 22

Stepchildren, grandchildren, and adopted children may receive survivor benefits in special situations. You’ll have to contact the SSA to sort out these circumstances.

For parents

  • Parents who are dependent on the income of a deceased person

If they meet certain criteria, parents over the age of 62 and receive more than half their support from their deceased child may collect benefits.

For divorced spouses

  • Divorced spouses whose marriage lasted at least ten years

If your spouse remarried and their current spouse is also eligible for survivor benefits, don't fret. This may not affect your benefit amount.

How to Claim Survivor Benefits After a Death

Follow these steps so you can claim your survivor benefits as soon as possible. Like above, it's simple to complete this process. 

Step 1: Contact the SSA and deliver the death notification

Even if you relied on the funeral home to make the notification, it never hurts to follow up. You can call them or make an appointment at your local Social Security office and they can help you determine your next steps.

Step 2: Collect important documents

Social Security will need to examine several documents to verify the death and benefits eligibility. These may include: 

  • Death certificate
  • Birth certificate or other proof of birth
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status
  • W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns
  • Marriage certificate

These may depend based on the specific benefits that you’re applying for.

Step 3: Let the SSA know if you’re already getting benefits from a spouse or parent

If you’re already receiving benefits, you won’t have to file a new application for survivor benefits. The SSA automatically converts monthly benefits into survivor benefits once they’ve received the death notification. 

Note that if you’re already receiving retirement or disability benefits but not anything from a spouse, you’ll need to apply for survivors' benefits. Your Social Security representative will see if you qualify for a higher benefit as a widow or widower. 

Step 4: Sign up for survivor benefits

If you aren’t already receiving benefits through a spouse or parent, you’ll have to start from scratch in applying for survivor benefits. 

If you can, apply as soon as possible. In some cases, benefits aren’t retroactive. You’ll only get them from the time you applied, but not necessarily from the date your loved one passed away.

In addition, you might qualify for what's known as a death benefit through Social Security. This is a one-time, lump-sum payment for the surviving spouse or child of the deceased. This can be used to pay for final expenses, funeral costs, and so on. Whether you're hosting a virtual or hybrid funeral with GatheringUs or a traditional, in-person event, this death benefit is a definite help. 

Getting the Benefits You Need

When you’re in mourning, the thought of dealing with the Social Security benefits might feel overwhelming. But, you can find comfort in knowing that the process is pretty straightforward. 

The Social Security Administration website is comprehensive and the representatives are well-versed in helping you get what you’re entitled to. Getting your benefits sorted out is a great first step for those people who don’t know where to begin again after losing a loved one.

Disclaimer: The information posted on this site is provided solely for informational and educational purposes and is not legal advice or tax advice. Contact an appropriate professional licensed in your jurisdiction for advice specific to your legal or tax situation.


Sources

  1. “Benefits Planner: Survivors | How You Apply”. Social Security Administration Website. United States Government, April 22, 2019, https://www.ssa.gov/planners/survivors/howtoapply.html

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