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Social Security survivor benefits might be greater than you think

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Many people don't realize how far their Social Security taxes go toward the protection of their families when they die. Your Social Security survivors insurance protection could be worth more than your commercial life insurance.

The misperception is strengthened by ads such as a TV life insurance commercial in which a widow says her husband's Social Security survivor payments are not enough to bury him. She was referring to the $255 lump-sum payment Social Security makes to the widow or widower of a deceased worker.

To the extent that the statement indicates that the lump-sum benefit is the total of Social Security survivor benefits, it is misleading. About 7.2-million of the 44-million people receiving monthly Social Security benefits are survivors of deceased workers. Following are some common questions concerning survivors benefits.

Who can be eligible?

+ Your surviving spouse, if he or she is at least 60, or under 60 but caring for a child under 16. If the child becomes disabled before age 22, the surviving parent could be eligible for survivor benefits as long as the child remains disabled.

+ A divorced spouse could also be eligible for survivor benefits if he or she was married to the deceased worker for at least 10 years. The surviving divorced widow or widower's benefits will not affect a current widow or widower's benefits.

+ Your unmarried children younger than 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.

+ Dependent parents can also be eligible for survivor benefits if they were receiving more than one half of their support from the deceased worker.

Survivor benefits

The amount your widow or widower gets is a percentage of the basic Social Security benefit you would have received at 65. If your surviving spouse is 65 or older, the benefits will be 100 percent of your benefit. At ages 60-64, the benefit is 71 to 94 percent. If the survivor is caring for your child, the benefit would be 75 percent for the widow or widower and 75 percent for the child.

There is a limit to how much money a family can receive a month. The limit varies, but it generally equals 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. In 1998, the average benefit to a widow or widower with two children is $1,522 a month.

While most workers have life insurance, the average value of a group policy is less than $30,000, and less than $40,000 for an individual policy. Under Social Security, however, the survivor protection of a worker who dies at 25 with average earnings is worth about $313,000.

The chance of collecting survivor benefits is greater than most people realize. Social Security actuaries estimate that today's 20-year-olds face roughly one chance in six of dying before retirement age. For some families, Social Security benefits help maintain their lifestyles in the absence of a wage earner; for others, it helps keep them above the poverty level.

If you are interested in more information on Social Security protection, call the Social Security office and ask for the booklet Survivors.

If you have questions about Social Security, want information on preparing to file or want to make an appointment, call Social Security at (800) 772-1213. You can get information 24 hours a day. To make an appointment or speak to a service representative, call from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on business days.

_ Daryl Rosenthal is a field representative with the Carrollwood Social Security office and has been working for the agency 12 years.

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