I worry that I sometimes neglect a significant cohort of my readers. I get so many emails from people for whom their Social Security checks are just the icing on their retirement cakes. For example, they tell me that they want to delay starting their benefits as long as possible because they have other investments or savings to keep them economically comfortable.
So frequently, the topics of my columns are pitched toward them discussing issues like “maximizing” their Social Security payout.
But then every once in a while I get emails from people on the opposite end of the economic spectrum. These folks rely on their Social Security checks for most, if not all, of their livelihood. I got such an email recently from “Mary.”
Mary is 85 years old. Her husband, “Henry,” is 89. They have been married 61 years. Mary told me that Henry is in failing health, and she is very worried about what will happen to her financially when he dies.
Specifically, she is concerned about what happens with their Social Security checks, whom she has to notify at the bank, how she obtains death certificates and what she has to do to claim widow’s benefits.
So to help Mary, and other people in her situation, I thought I would explain what happens when someone who was collecting Social Security benefits dies.
The first issue we will cover is what to do with the Social Security checks for the deceased. And to do so, I must start out making two points:
First, Social Security checks are paid one month behind. For example, the check you get in February is the benefit payment for January.
Second, Social Security benefits have never been prorated. I’ve explained before how this lack of proration can help out when someone first starts getting Social Security. For example, if you took benefits at age 66 and you turned 66 on June 28, you would get a check for the whole month of June even though you are only 66 for 3 days of the month. On the other hand, if your spouse dies on June 28, you would not be due the proceeds of that June Social Security check even though he or she was alive for 28 days of the month.
So, Mary, when Henry dies, the Social Security check received for that month has to be returned. For example, let’s say that he does pass away on June 28. That means the Social Security check he might get in July has to go back to the government.
You’ll notice I said the check he “might” get. I added that qualifier because there is a very good chance the check won’t even show up in your bank account. As you maybe have heard, there are all kinds of computer-matching operations that go on between various government agencies and banks. If the Treasury Department learns of your husband’s death in time, they won’t issue the benefit. Or, if the check was issued, the bank will likely intercept the payment and return it to the government before it hits your checking account.
In other words, you usually don’t have to worry about returning any Social Security checks. It’s almost always done for you.
There can be a little twist to this scenario. For example, let’s say that Henry dies on July 2. Because he was alive the whole month of June, that means you are due the money from that June check, which is paid sometime in July — but after Henry died. Once again, there is a very good chance that check won’t show up in your bank account because either the Treasury Department won’t send it or it was issued and the bank sent it back. The difference between this scenario and the first one I described is that you are due the proceeds of that check. And it will eventually be reissued to you. More about that in a minute.
But first, a word to Mary about getting a death certificate. She worried about that. Death certificates are usually issued by city, county or state bureaus of vital statistics. Probably, you can get help with this from the funeral director who will be handling your husband’s remains. I’m sure he or she will arrange to get you copies of his death certificate. By the way, your local Social Security office may or may not need a copy of the death certificate. They may get proof of your husband’s death from other sources, such as the funeral home or the bureau of vital statistics.
Normally, I’d suggest that you try to handle your Social Security business online. But as I’ve pointed out in past columns, a claim for widow’s or widower’s benefits must be done in person. And you do that by calling the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213. You can either arrange to file a claim by phone, or you can make an appointment to do so at your local Social Security office.
What you need to do depends on the kind of benefits you were receiving before Henry died. If you were getting only a spousal benefit (in other words, you didn’t have enough work credits to get your own Social Security benefit), then the process is pretty simple. No widow’s application is required. Simply notify SSA of Henry’s death, and they push a few buttons to switch you from wife’s benefits to widow’s benefits. Because you are well over “full retirement age,” you will start getting whatever Henry was getting at the time of death. (And if he started his Social Security at age 62, you will actually get a little more. He would have been getting a rate equal to 75 percent of his full benefit, and you are guaranteed to get at least 82 percent of his full benefit.)
If you were getting your own retirement benefits, then you have to file an application for widow’s benefits. It’s not hard either, just a few questions about you and Henry. You may have to provide a copy of your marriage certificate.
Whether you have an automatic “push button” claim or a formal application, you will start getting widow’s benefits effective with the month he died. For example, if he dies on June 28, you will be due widow’s benefits for the whole month of June, even though you were a widow only 3 days of the month.
And following the example where he died on July 3, you will get widow’s benefits for July and you will get the proceeds of his June check issued to you.
Finally, no matter what kind of claim you file, you will get the one-time $255 death benefit as well.