|TWICE A WIDOW?
HIGHER SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS COULD BE IN YOUR FUTURE
By David Smith
While visiting a local senior adult center, a 70-year-old woman told me she had been widowed twice—once at age 48 and 18 years later at age 65. She was receiving retired spouse’s benefits on her second husband’s earnings record when he died. When her second husband died, Social Security automatically converted her spouse’s benefits to widow’s benefits based on his record. I asked her permission to check her file to determine whether she could receive a higher benefit on her first husband’s record.
Sure enough, because her first husband had a higher earnings record, she would receive a higher benefit if she filed on his earnings record. We advised her to file a new claim. As a result, her benefits were immediately increased.
This situation happens all too often. Many women who have outlived more than one husband simply do not realize that they may be eligible for benefits on either deceased spouse’s earnings record.
When a spouse dies, Social Security’s practice is to automatically convert the spouse’s benefit to a widow or widower benefit based on the deceased spouse’s record. The conversion letter suggests the person should contact Social Security if she or he had been a widow or widower from a previous marriage. Unfortunately, some people who may be eligible for the higher benefit do not contact us.
Some divorced women and men also may be eligible for benefits based on a deceased ex-spouse’s record if the marriage had lasted at least ten years. In some cases, these divorced individuals may not know they could be eligible for higher benefits. And, we may not be aware of their eligibility unless they contact us.
For more information about
survivors benefits, visit www.ssa.gov and click on Benefit Planners, call
Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 or visit a local Social Security office.
THINK OF SOCIAL SECURITY AS LIFE INSURANCE
If you think of Social Security as just a retirement program, you’re missing out on one of the most important things your Social Security taxes are paying for. That's the part that goes to pay for survivors benefits . . . benefits that help keep families together at the death of the worker and assure a legacy of hope for orphans and widows.
Those benefits could be worth much more than the value of the commercial life insurance you have. For example, the average value of a group policy is less than $30,000 and an individual policy less than $40,000. Under Social Security, a surviving spouse and two children of a worker with average earnings who died at age 25 could receive as much as $374,000 in monthly benefits over the years.
In addition to your spouse and minor children, other people who could qualify for a benefit if you die include your dependent parents, your divorced spouse, and adult disabled children who were disabled before age 22. And the benefit amounts increase annually with the cost of living. It's important that you’re aware of these benefits in planning the financial security of your family. You should know who can get benefits and how much. And your family should know how to apply for survivors benefits and how work and other income may affect the benefits they receive.
WHO CAN GET SURVIVORS BENEFITS
If you should die, Social Security benefits can be paid to:
Widow or widower--your surviving spouse may receive full benefits at her or his full retirement age or reduced benefits as early as 60. If she or he becomes disabled, benefits may start as early as age 50.
If you leave dependent children in the care of your surviving spouse she or he may receive benefits at any age up until the youngest child reaches age 16, or as long as a child who is disabled before age 22 remains disabled.
If a divorced spouse survives you, she or he might qualify for a survivors benefit on the same conditions as if you were still married as long as the marriage lasted 10 years. The surviving divorced widow's benefits will not affect a current widow's benefits.
Children--Your unmarried children under age 18 — or up to 19 if they are still in high school full time — may receive benefits. Your child can get benefits at any age if he or she was disabled before age 22 and remains disabled. Benefits may also be paid to your stepchildren, adopted children or grandchildren under certain circumstances.
Dependent Parents--If you are paying more than one half support for your parents, they may also qualify for benefits when you die if they are age 62 or older.
HOW MUCH ARE BENEFITS?
How much your family can get from Social Security depends on your average lifetime earnings. In general, the higher your earnings, the higher their benefits will be.
The amount your widow or widower gets is a percentage of the basic Social Security benefit you would have received at full retirement age. If your surviving spouse is at full retirement age or older, the benefit will be 100 percent of your benefit. At ages 60-64, about 71-94 percent; if he or she has your child in his or her care; if he or she has your child in his or her care, the benefit would be 75 percent for the widow or widower and 75 percent for the child.
There’s a limit to the amount of money that can be paid to you and other family members each month. The limit varies, but is generally equal to about 150 to 180 percent of the deceased worker's benefit rate. If the sum of the benefits payable to the family members is greater than this limit, the benefits will be reduced proportionately.
At present, the average benefit payable to a widow/widower with two children is $2,076 a month.
These survivors benefits are payable on the earnings of either worker in the family. This means you should know how to apply for survivors benefits for your children if your working spouse dies.
Perhaps you’ve seen the TV ads for life insurance benefits that feature an elderly lady describing her deceased husband's Social Security survivors benefits as a lump sum death payment, "It's only $255 — not enough to bury him with." But, as you can see, Social Security's survivors benefits are lot more than a lump sum payment. It can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases.
If your spouse dies, you should apply for survivors benefits as soon after the death of the worker as possible because, in some cases, benefits may not be retroactive. You can apply by telephone (1-800-772-1213) or at any Social Security office.
We will need certain documents when you apply. If you don't have them, apply anyway and we will help you get them. These documents include:
· The Social Security
numbers for yourself and your children, as well as the worker's
If you're already getting benefits as a wife or husband on your spouse's record, we will change your payment to survivors benefits. If you're getting benefits on your own record, we'll check to see if you can get more as a widow or widower. We'll need to see your spouse's death certificate to process your claim, unless the funeral director has already sent us proof of death.
If you're getting survivors benefits and you remarry before age 60, benefits will generally stop. At age 62, you may get benefits on the record of your new spouse if they are higher.
IF YOU WORK
While most types of income will not affect your Social Security checks, there are two types that may. Earnings over the annual earnings limit will reduce your survivors benefit. If you are under age 64, the reduction rate for 2001 is $1 in benefits for every $2 in earnings over the $10,800. If you reach age 65 in 2001, your benefits will be reduced $1 for each $3 you earn over $25,000. Once you reach full retirement age (65 if you were born before 1938) you can receive full retirement benefits no matter how much you earn.
Your benefit amounts may
be affected if you work in a government job that is not covered by Social
Security and you earn your own pension. This is called the "government
pension offset," which means your Social Security spouse or survivors benefit
may be reduced by two-thirds of the amount of the government pension.
This is something you should know about if you are working in a government
job in which you do not pay Social Security taxes.
ONLINE SOCIAL SECURITY FINANCIAL PLANNING HELP AVAILABLE FOR ALL AGES
By David Smith
Social Security benefits can provide much needed financial support for you or your family when you retire, if you become disabled or when you die. The Social Security Benefits Planner found at www.ssa.gov/planners is designed to help you better understand your Social Security benefits as you plan for your financial future.
The Planner contains sections dealing with retirement, disability and survivors benefits, making it a useful tool for people of all ages. A benefit calculator permits you to use different assumptions about your future work to see how they may affect your benefit amounts.
The retirement section will help you learn how you qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, which members of your family may get benefits and when you should apply. You can also link to outside websites that discuss other sources of retirement income and post-retirement concerns such as housing, medical care and leisure activities.
What if you are disabled before you reach retirement age? The Planner explains how you and your family may qualify for benefits if you become severely disabled before you qualify for retirement benefits. Even very young workers already may have earned disability protection.
What help is available for survivors? This section helps you learn about survivors benefits from two sides: first, how your family members are protected when you die and second, how you may qualify as a survivor on someone else’s Social Security record. This protection is particularly important for young families with children.
In addition, the calculator is linked to a worksheet developed by the American Savings Education Council that helps you figure out how much additional retirement income you will need to support your current lifestyle.
Each year, we send you a
personal Social Security Statement, which gives you an estimate of the
monthly benefit amounts you and your family may qualify for now and in
the future. Using the Statement and the online Benefits Planner,
you can explore the options available to you to build financial security
for yourself and your family using your Social Security benefits as a base.
MEDICARE INTERNET SITE POPULAR WITH ELDERLY
By David Smith
Internet access among people with Medicare who are 65 and older skyrocketed from 6.8 percent in 1997 to 21.3 percent in 1999. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, over seven million people a month visit their web site at www.medicare.gov to get information about Medicare.
Examples of what you’ll find on the Medicare website include:
· Information on Medicare
eligibility and enrollment and instructions on how to read a Medicare summary
Although the Internet site
is designed especially for Medicare beneficiaries, it is a useful resource
for advocacy groups, federal and state organizations, social and caseworkers
and health care providers as well. Information may be customized and printed
for local and individual needs. Some information at www.medicare.gov is
available in Spanish and Chinese as well as English.
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