June 6, 2008We all know that Social Security provides benefits for workers -- that is, people who have paid Social Security taxes on their own earnings. But do you understand how Social Security also benefits workers' families?
When you start receiving your own Social Security retirement benefits, your spouse, dependent children and former spouse also may be eligible for benefits based on your work record. When you die, certain members of your family may be eligible for Social Security survivor's benefits. These include widows, widowers (and divorced widows and widowers), children and dependent parents. Likewise, you may be the beneficiary of someone else's Social Security payments.
I've listed some of the basic eligibility rules for spouses, widows and widowers, former spouses and children below. You can learn more about these benefits by visiting the Social Security Web site. If you think you are eligible for benefits based on someone else's record, you should contact SSA at 800-772-1213 to make an appointment to discuss the options that are available to you. Because of reductions and credits based on your age and the age of the worker, the timing of your application can affect the value of your lifetime benefits. If you are eligible for benefits, you should not delay applying since the benefits are not always payable retroactively.
But before we go any further, here's a note for those covered by the Civil Service Retirement System: Under CSRS, the Social Security spousal benefits you may be entitled to can be reduced or eliminated because of the Government Pension Offset. The GPO does not affect your spouse's entitlement to their own earned Social Security benefits or the Social Security spousal benefits that you've earned for them as long as they are not entitled to a CSRS benefit of their own.
Spouses and Families
Suppose Bob, 55, married Lorraine, 42, and they had two children, Megan and Travis. If Bob retires at age 66 and applies for his Social Security retirement benefits, Lorraine (now 53), Megan (11) and Travis (9) all will be eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on Bob's work record. Each will be eligible for up to 50 percent of Bob's earned benefit. (If Lorraine is working, her benefits may be reduced by an annual earnings limit.) When Megan and Travis turn 16, Lorraine's benefits will stop until she turns 62. Megan and Travis will be eligible for benefits until they graduate from high school.
Even if he or she has never worked under Social Security, your spouse:
If your spouse is eligible for retirement benefits on his or her own record, Social Security will pay that amount first. But if the benefit on your record is a higher amount, he or she will get a combination of benefits that equals that higher amount (reduced for age).
A spouse who has reached full retirement age (65 to 67, depending on year of birth) and is eligible for a spouse's benefit and his or her own retirement benefit can choose to receive only the spouse's benefits and delay receiving retirement benefits until later.
When you choose to start your retirement benefits also affects the amount your surviving spouse may receive. If you start your benefits before full retirement age, Social Security doesn't pay your surviving spouse the full benefit amount from your record. Also, if you choose to receive a reduced benefit before full retirement age on your own record, you are not entitled to the full spouse's benefit rate upon reaching full retirement age.
Widows and Widowers
About 5 million widows and widowers currently receive monthly Social Security benefits based on their deceased spouse's earnings record. Widows and widowers who have not remarried can receive full benefits at their full retirement age or older, or reduced benefits as early as. They can begin receiving benefits as early as age 50 if they are disabled.
If you are receiving widows, widowers, or divorced widows or widowers benefits, you can switch to your own retirement benefit as early as 62, assuming you are eligible for benefits and your retirement rate is higher than your rate as a widow or widower.
In many cases, a widow or widower can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then, at full retirement age, switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate.
If you are divorced (even if you have remarried), your ex-spouse may qualify for benefits on your record if you are 62 or older. To do so, your ex-spouse must have been married to you for at least 10 years, be at least 62 years old, be unmarried and not be eligible for an equal or higher benefit on his or her own Social Security record (or someone else's).
If you are eligible for retirement benefits but have not yet applied and have been divorced for at least two years, your divorced spouse still may be able to collect benefits on your Social Security record.
About 3.8 million children receive approximately $1.6 billion each month because one or both of their parents are disabled, retired or deceased. Your biological or adopted children and dependent stepchildren are eligible for such benefits. (In some cases, your child also could be eligible for benefits on his or her grandparents' earnings.)
To get benefits, a child must have a parent who is disabled or retired and entitled to Social Security benefits, or a parent who died after having worked long enough in a job where he or she paid Social Security taxes.
Also, the child must be unmarried, under 18 (or 18 to 19 years old and a full-time student at no higher than grade 12), or 18 or older and disabled.
Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.
June 6, 2008