FEDZONE Ed Zurndorfer

This is the second of three FEDZONE columns presenting guidance for family members of deceased annuitants (federal employees who retired and were receiving either a CSRS or FERS annuity at the time of their death) and the tasks that have to be performed in order for these surviving family members to receive survivor benefits. This second column discusses Social Security survivor benefits.

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Social Security Widow/Widower Survivor Benefits

The loss of any close relative involves time for grieving, particularly if the death was sudden. This is especially true when mourning the loss of a spouse. Rushing into any financial decisions may not result in positive outcomes. Widows/widowers are therefore advised to take their time to begin healing before taking on the complexities of financial planning as an unmarried individual.

However, determining whether Social Security survivor benefits are payable to family members (including widows, widowers, former spouses and children) should be at the top of the list, even when the grieving process is at its peak. Timely action can ensure that valuable income is paid as soon as possible.

A surviving spouse can collect up to 100 percent of their deceased spouse’s Social Security monthly retirement benefit if the surviving spouse has reached his or her full retirement age (FRA). A surviving spouse’s FRA ranges from age 65 to age 67, depending on the year the surviving spouse was born. The following table shows FRA according to the year of birth:

Table 1. FRA According to Year of Birth

Year of Birth Full Retirement Age






After 1959

66 years

66 years and 2 months

66 years and 4 months

66 years and 6 months

66 years and 8 months

66 years and 10 months

67 years

There are several caveats as to the amount of the deceased spouse’s Social Security benefit a surviving spouse can receive. For example, if the deceased spouse started to receive his or her retirement benefit before their full retirement age, Social Security cannot pay the full retirement age benefit based on their records. In general, if the individual who died was receiving a reduced monthly retirement benefit, then the surviving spouse’s benefit is based on that amount. The actual amount of the surviving spouse’s payment will differ according to circumstances. Table 2 shows the range (percentage) of the deceased spouse’s Social Security as a function of age and family circumstances.

Table 2. Percentage of Deceased Spouse’s FRA Social Security Benefit as a Function of Age and Family Circumstances

Status of Widow/Widower Age Family Circumstances Percentage of Deceased Spouse’s FRA Social Security Benefit
Nondisabled FRA or older Single 100%
Nondisabled Age 60 to FRA Single 71.5 to 99%
Disabled Age 50 to 59 Single 71.5%
Nondisabled Any Age Caring for a child who is younger than age 16 75%
  1. There are other considerations that may affect a widow/widower’s Social Security benefits, including:
    • “Fully” insured or “currently” insured status. In order for eligible family members to receive a portion of the deceased’s Social Security benefits, the deceased had to be “fully” insured at the time of death. “Fully” insured means that at least 40 credits of Social Security must have been earned by the deceased at the time of death. However, the possibility may exist for benefits to be payable to a young individual’s surviving spouse. An individual is considered “currently” insured if the deceased individual earned at least six credits of Social Security during the 13-quarter period ending with the calendar year in which the individual died. In that scenario, benefits to surviving dependents of the deceased may be payable.
    • Effect of the Government Pension Offset (GPO). If an individual is receiving a government pension that was earned from employment not covered by Social Security (for example, a CSRS annuitant) the individual’s Social Security monthly benefit will be reduced, and sometimes eliminated by the GPO. 

       On the other hand, if an individual is receiving a CSRS survivor annuity benefit, then the CSRS survivor annuity benefit will not cause the GPO to reduce the Social Security widow/widower benefit.

    • Only one Social Security benefit. An individual will not receive both a Social Security survivor benefit check and his or her own Social Security check. The Social Security Administration in general will pay the higher of the two amounts.
    • Below FRA, working, and receiving a Social Security survivor benefit. If a surviving spouse is younger than his or her FRA and still working, his or her survivor benefit could be affected by Social Security’s earnings limit.

Social Security Benefits for Surviving Children

Eligible children can receive up to 75 percent of their deceased parent’s FRA Social Security benefit at the time of the parent’s death. An unmarried child can get benefits if they are:

  • Younger than age 18.
  • Between ages 18 and 19, and a full-time high school student, or
  • Age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.

Under certain circumstances, benefits may be paid to a stepchild, grandchild, step-grandchild or adopted child. To get benefits, a child must have either: (1) A parent who is disabled or retired and entitled to Social Security benefits; or (2) A parent who died after having worked ling enough in a job in which they paid Social Security taxes.

Social Security Benefits for Surviving Divorced Former Spouse

Divorced spouses who were married at least 10 years are eligible for Social Security benefits based on the ex-spouse’s record. A divorced spouse who is caring for a child under age 16 or a child of any age who is disabled and who receives benefits based on the record of the former spouse does not have to meet the 10-year length or marriage rule. The child must be the former spouse’s natural or legally adopted child.

A divorced spouse who remarries after age 60, or age 50 if disabled, will not lose their eligibility to receive their survivor benefits from a former spouse. In order to prove their eligibility for a former spouse’s survivor benefit, a divorced spouse will have to show the former spouse’s Social Security number, and their marriage certificate and divorce decree. 

Filing for Social Security Survivor Benefit

Unlike retirement, spousal or even ex-spousal benefits, survivor benefits (including children’s survivor benefits) cannot be claimed online. The application must be made either by calling Social Security (1-800-772-1213; TTY 1-800-325-0778) or by visiting a local Social Security office.

Before acting, it is crucial for individuals claiming survivor benefits to gather the documents to make the claim. Otherwise, costly delays and loss of monthly benefits may occur. Documents to have on hand include a certified copy of the death certificate, marriage certificate, and divorce decree in the case of benefit under a former deceased spouse, Social Security numbers for each qualifying dependent, the most recent income tax return or W2 of the deceased individual, and bank information for direct deposit.

Ed Zurndorfer, EA, ATA, CFP®, CLU®, ChFC®, CEBS®, ChFEBC℠: Federal Employee Benefits Expert

A former career Federal employee, Ed has published a staggering 1,200+ separate articles on Federal Benefits and Retirement!
Just “Google” his name, and you are likely to find a plethora of sites that contain his writings. Drawn to its mission to reach, teach
and serve Feds, Serving Those Who Serve is the only financial planning practice with which Ed has chosen to affiliate in over
20 years teaching. In addition to conducting Federal Benefits seminars for Serving Those Who Serve, you can find Ed’s
writings here on our blog in the FedZone, and on Fed-Soup, MyFederalRetirement, FederalNews Radio and NITP.

He is a member of the Maryland Society of Accountants, the National Association of Enrolled Agents, the International Society of Certified Employee Benefits Specialists, the Financial Planning Association, the National Association of Health Underwriters,
and the Society of Financial Service Professionals. Since 1999, Ed has taught many thousands of Federal employees about
their benefits, in person and at Federal agencies all over the country. Ed is a true national treasure.

Edward A. Zurndorfer is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, Chartered Life Underwriter, Chartered Financial Consultant, Chartered Federal Employee Benefits Consultant, Certified Employees Benefits Specialist and IRS Enrolled Agent in Silver Spring, MD. Tax planning, Federal employee benefits, retirement and insurance consulting services offered through EZ Accounting and Financial Services, and EZ Federal Benefits Seminars, located at 833 Bromley Street - Suite A, Silver Spring, MD 20902-3019 and telephone number 301-681-1652. Raymond James is not affiliated with and does not endorse the opinions or services of Edward A. Zurndorfer or EZ Accounting and Financial Services. The information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete. While we are familiar with the tax provisions of the issues presented herein, as Financial Advisors of RJFS, we are not qualified to render advice on tax or legal matters. You should discuss tax or legal matters with the appropriate professional.

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