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  • Writer's pictureChris Stein, CFP®

Social Security Survivorship & Child-In-Care Benefits

A reader from Oklahoma asks about his mother's ability to claim Social Security survivor and child-in-care benefits.


"My dad just passed away. He was 68 and was collecting Social Security. My mom is 58 and has two children under 16, one of whom just turned 16. Will she be able to collect 75% of her husband's Social Security benefit? She checked her account today, saying they only gave her $225, which is nowhere near what she should be getting. Is that just child credits because she still has children underage at home? Please help. We don't know what's going on."


I'm sorry to hear about your dad. Losing him is especially rough when he leaves young children under 16 behind.


You mentioned your father was collecting his Social Security. Whether someone is collecting or not, when a person passes away who is fully insured under the Social Security system, they leave behind a potential survivor benefit for spouses and children under the age of 18 (or under 19 if they are still in high school). Some unique rules apply depending on the ages of the surviving spouses and children.


In this case, although your father was already collecting, your mother was only 58, so she wasn't yet collecting spousal benefits on his record. In fact, she was likely not in their system collecting anything at all when he passed away. She did receive one payment, though. If you go back and check, I believe she received $255 (and not $225), which is the amount of Social Security's lump sum death benefit. As soon as Social Security is notified that a recipient has passed away, they automatically pay a lump sum of $255 to a spouse living in the house with the deceased person. If there isn't a spouse, the payment goes to a child. The sum isn't substantial, but it is automatic.


I suspect that amount was deposited because Social Security hasn't finished processing the application for the remainder. Hopefully, an application was submitted. I say 'hopefully' because your mother wasn't in their system. If she were older and had been collecting a spousal benefit on his record before he died, once they were notified of his death, they would have automatically converted her spousal benefit into the larger survivor benefit.


However, not being in their system means she must file proactively to claim survivor benefits. They don't start automatically. The death benefit piece is triggered automatically because it's paid out regardless of age. However, with the survivor benefit, they don't assume you want to start it right away because there are different financial reasons why she might want to wait before turning the benefit on.


So, it's critical to ensure she has filed an application. If she has – which I suspect is the case – it's probably still in process, and they will eventually 'make her whole.' Once the application is fully processed and the payment is made, any months they missed because they didn't start right away will be paid to her in a lump sum.


Age 60 is generally the youngest age when someone can collect the survivor benefit unless they are disabled. (In that case, they can collect at 50.) I'm raising the issue of your mother filing because of the children's ages. With at least one child under 16, the surviving spouse can file at any age. For example, your mother can claim at age 58 because she has a child-in-care -- a child under 16 at home, presumably from the marriage. She can collect 75% of the deceased's benefit because the system assumes that she is there caring for the child of the deceased worker.


Not only that, but each of the children can collect up to 75% of what the deceased person was collecting. You mentioned multiple children. When that's the case, a family maximum comes into play. It's not that they will pay out three or four times the 75%; there will be some limitations. But, because there's at least one child under 16, all of the beneficiaries – all the kids under 18 (or 19 in high school) and the spouse – are eligible to receive survivor benefits to some degree from your dad's work record. So, the greatest help you could give your mom is to ensure she has applied for benefits for herself and all children under 18 (or 19).


Wrapping up, I believe the $255 was an initial payment of the death benefit, with survivor benefits arriving once the application is fully processed. Hopefully, that's the case, and the money will start being deposited shortly. If the application hasn't been filed, that must happen immediately. The good news is that retroactive filings are permitted if your dad's passing occurred recently. But if she hasn't filed an official application for benefits, she needs to do that and try to have them backdate payments to when your father passed away.


I hope this has been helpful. It's not a common situation. Not only is there a child under 16, but we also have a pretty significant age gap where the younger spouse wasn't yet of age to claim regular Social Security benefits when the older spouse passed away. The child-in-care provision with a child under 16 opens the door to a benefit for her.


You didn't say whether your mother is working, so I'll add one last thing. The Earnings Test will limit the Social Security benefit that she might be eligible to receive if she's working and earning more than the annual amount. Just know that survivor benefits can also fall under the limitations of the Earnings Test. I'm throwing that out there, just in case.


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