Changing From Spouse To Survivors Benefits

Q: Both my father-in-law and my dad died over the past year. Social Security started sending an increased widows amount to my mother-in-law automatically but my mother had to complete paperwork. Why the difference?

A: Before discussing some possible reasons, this is a good point to state that Social Security should always be contacted when there is a death in the family.

Social Security benefits do not start “automatically” on their own, even if the work needed is not readily seen by the public. Action must be taken within the Social Security Administration to either start or change benefits paid. Contacting Social Security, either by calling the national toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778), or a local office, provides opportunity to answer your questions and to take action to get any benefits due paid.

Depending on what benefits were received prior to the death, an application is not always needed. The process is the same whether Social Security survivors benefits are payable to a widow or widower.

For one example, have husband and wife each receive Social Security retirement based on their individual work history. He receives from his work, she from hers. The two records are independently established. When either dies, an application is needed from the widow or widower for any survivors benefits to be paid. In addition to determining if any survivor benefits are payable, development includes establishing the marital relationship, usually with the marriage certificate. This was not needed before because each person was receiving only through his or her own work record.

Now use an example where either husband or wife had been receiving a spousal benefit, even if also receiving through his or her own retirement work record. When the family sees the change to a survivors benefit as “automatic”, this is usually the situation. For simplicity, say the wife was eligible as a spouse on the husband’s record and he dies first. When notified of his death, action within Social Security is taken to change her benefits from that of wife (spouse) to widow (survivor). No application is needed. Since she was eligible as a spouse, Social Security had previously established that she would be eligible for a survivors benefit if widowed and the marital relationship was already developed.

Even when both people received Social Security on the same record, as in the preceding example, sometimes paperwork, although not a complete application, is required to change a Social Security spousal benefit to husband or wife to a survivors benefit to a widower or widow. An example is if the surviving spouse is younger than his or her personal survivors full retirement age (FRA). Starting a benefit when younger than FRA results in reduced benefits. Documentation is required to show that the person chose to start reduced survivors benefits rather than wait for a higher benefit in the future.

Survivors benefits are not always payable. For example, if the survivors own Social Security retirement amount was higher than the one received by his or her deceased spouse, receipt of an ongoing, monthly, survivors benefit is unlikely although a one-time payment might be possible.

Always contact Social Security when there is a death in the family.