Social Security Benefits – What Happens When a Spouse Dies?

Social Security benefits can change after the death of a spouse.
What happens to Social Security on the death of a spouse?

Imagine both spouses are receiving Social Security when one spouse dies. What will happen with their Social Security checks?  How does the survivor obtain death certificates? How complicated will it be to obtain survivor benefits?

First, what happens to the Social Security monthly benefits? Social Security benefits are always one month behind. The check you receive in May, for example, is the benefit payment for April.

Second, Social Security benefits are not prorated. If you took benefits at age 66, and then turned 66 on September 28, you would get a check for the whole month of September, even though you were only 66 for three days of the month.

If your spouse dies on January 28, you would not be due the proceeds of that January Social Security check, even though he or she was alive for 28 days of the month.

So, when a spouse dies, the monies for that month may have to be returned. The computer-matching systems linking the government agencies and banks may make this unnecessary, if the benefits are not issued. Or, if the benefits were issued, the Treasury Department may simply interrupt the payment and return it to the government, before it reaches a bank account.

There may be a twist, depending upon the date of the decedent’s passing. Let’s say that a spouse dies on April 3. Because he or she lived throughout the entire month of March, that means the benefits for March are due, even though they are paid in April. If a check was not issued or sent back because of the date, it should eventually be reissued.

Obtaining death certificates is usually handled by the funeral director, or the city, county or state bureaus of vital statistics. You will need more than one original death certificate for use with banks, investments, etc. The Social Security office may or may not need one, as they may receive proof of death from other sources, including the funeral home.

If you were already receiving spousal benefits on the deceased spouse’s work record, Social Security will in most cases switch you automatically to survivor benefits when the death is reported.  Otherwise, you will need to apply for survivor benefits by phone at the 800 number for Social Security or in person at your local Social Security office.

If you had only received a spousal benefit as a non-working spouse and you are over full retirement age, then you receive whatever your spouse was receiving at the time of his or her death. If you were getting your own retirement benefits, keep in mind that you will not receive a survivor benefit in addition to your own retirement benefits. Social Security will pay the higher of the two amounts.

Survivor benefits will begin effective on the month of your spouse’s death. If your spouse dies on June 28, then you will be due survivor benefits for the entire month of June, even if you were only a widow or widower for three days of the month. No matter what type of claim you file, you will also receive a one-time $255 death benefit.

Reference: Tuscon.com (March 13, 2019) “Social Security and You: What to do when a loved one dies”

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