Dear Rusty: My wife passed away a few days ago and I have three children - ages 15, 11, and 10. Is there anything I need to do? Signed: Suddenly Widowed
Dear Suddenly Widowed: We are so sorry to hear of your wife’s passing; please accept our condolences for your loss. Here’s what you need to know about Social Security:
• Your wife’s minor children will all be eligible for a survivor benefit, which will be based upon the Social Security benefit amount your wife had earned up to the month she died. The children can collect their survivor benefit until they are 18 years old (or 19 if they are still in high school).
• The standard minor child benefit amount is 75% of your wife’s “primary insurance amount” (or PIA, which is the benefit she had earned until she died) but, since there will be three children collecting, the Family Maximum will apply. The Family Maximum limits total survivor benefits to between 150% and 180% of your wife’s PIA. Typically, with three survivors, the Family Maximum should come out to about 175% of your wife’s PIA. Social Security will determine these numbers when you apply for benefits for the children, which you should do by calling 1-800-772-1213, or making an appointment at your local SS field office (find it at www.ssa.gov/locator). The funeral home which handled your wife’s arrangements will send a copy of her death certificate to Social Security, but SS will probably require you to provide each child’s Social Security number and birth certificate, and you may also need to provide your wife’s death certificate if they ask for it. As each child becomes age-ineligible for minor child benefits, the benefit for each remaining minor child will automatically increase, up to their maximum 75% of your wife’s PIA.
• Because your children are minors, you will need to act as their Representative Payee. Social Security will guide you through that when you contact them to apply for benefits for the children, but it essentially means that their benefits will be paid directly to you and you will be obligated to use that money on behalf of the children. You can review Social Security’s Representative Payee rules at this link: www.ssa.gov/payee/.
• Regardless of your age, as your wife’s surviving spouse with minor children you could be eligible for a “child in care” surviving spouse benefit until the youngest child is 16, but you should be aware of the following:
• If you are working full time, you probably will be ineligible for child-in-care spouse benefits because of your earnings. Social Security imposes an earnings limit for those collecting early spousal or survivor benefits.
• If you are eligible for child-in-care benefits and collect the same, it would detract from the benefit amount each of your children will get because of the Family Maximum discussed above. In other words, the Family Maximum amount (which Social Security will determine based on your wife’s PIA) is the total amount that can be paid out on your wife’s record, regardless of how many survivors are collecting.
As your wife’s spouse, you will also be entitled to a one-time lump sum death benefit of $255, which you can request when you speak with Social Security. Once again, please accept our condolences on the loss of your wife. I hope the above information is helpful at this difficult time.
Russell Gloor is an Association of Mature American Citizens certified social security advisor. To submit a question, visit amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory or email email@example.com.