Social Security recipients who have lost a spouse may be eligible for a higher monthly payout if they switch to survivor’s benefits. But many recipients are unaware of this fact.
That ignorance could cost them tens of thousands of dollars over the course of their retirement, according to an audit by the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General.
The audit found that of 100 retirement beneficiaries sampled, 69 were eligible for survivor’s benefits, sometimes referred to as widow(er)’s benefits. Yet only 20 of those 69 beneficiaries had applied for survivor’s benefits.
Losing out on such benefits can be costly. As the audit report states:
“Based on the results of our review, we estimate 15,076 retirement beneficiaries were eligible for $193.8 million in widow(er)’s benefits as of September 2019. Further, we estimate 12,615 of these beneficiaries could lose an additional $530.9 million in widow(er)’s benefits over their lifetimes.”
Why are Social Security recipients often unaware of their eligibility for survivor’s benefits? The audit report says that it has happened for one of two reasons — or both:
- SSA employees did not always assess and take action when cases were alerted for possible payment increases.
- SSA employees did not have processes to detect beneficiaries potentially eligible for higher widow(er)’s benefits.
The report says unless changes are made at the SSA, “beneficiaries’ eligibility to widow(er)’s benefits may continue to go undetected.”
The report also urges the SSA to determine whether improvements are needed to help identify and notify Social Security recipients when they might benefit from taking a survivor’s benefit.
Understanding survivor’s benefits
As the name implies, survivor’s benefits are Social Security retirement benefits for which someone is eligible due to the death of a family member, often a spouse.
Survivor’s benefits can be worth up to 100% of the benefit amount that the deceased was receiving or was eligible to receive.
So, if the spouse of a widow (or widower) was receiving or was eligible for a benefit that was larger than the widow’s own benefit, it’s possible that the widow could receive a bigger monthly benefit by switching to survivor’s benefits.
According to the audit report from the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General, a person generally may be entitled to survivor’s benefits if all of the following apply:
- He or she was married to a Social Security recipient.
- He or she has reached age 60 (or age 50 if disabled).
- He or she is unmarried.
- His or her own retirement benefit is less than the deceased’s benefit.
- He or she filed an application for survivor’s benefits.
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