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Issues for Widows & Widowers
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This fact sheet
is designed for use by the surviving spouse (either male or female) of a
worker or retiree who has died. It presents a general overview of how
pension issues may affect the surviving spouse. This fact sheet is also
based on current law. The rules applicable to your case may be different
depending upon when your spouse died or retired. For specific legal
information, or more importantly, for legal advice, you should contact an
benefits differ with the various types of pension plans.
What you are entitled to as surviving spouse will vary, depending on the
retirement plan(s) in which your spouse participated, e.g., Social Security,
company pension governed by federal law, Civil Service, and Military
pension. Each of these will be discussed here, at least briefly, but you may
also want to see the CANHR fact sheets, which specifically refer to the type
of pension plan relevant to your situation.
What do you
need to find out before you can determine what benefits you are entitled to
as a surviving spouse of a worker or retiree?
What kind(s) of
retirement benefits was your spouse entitled to as a result of his or her
Did your spouse
die before or after he or she began to receive retirement benefits from a
Did the two of
you ever sign a waiver indicating that you wanted to receive a pension only
during his lifetime?
How are Social
Security benefits calculated?
benefits are based on a theoretical benefit level known as the Personal
Insurance Amount or PIA. An individual worker would receive this benefit if
he or she retired at age 65. Benefits paid to a couple are based on 150%
of the PIA. If you are a widow(er) of a Social Security beneficiary who
retired at 65, and you are at least 65, you are entitled to either 100% of
your former spouse's PIA for the rest of your life, or your own PIA,
whichever is higher.
entitled to a benefit as a surviving spouse even if you are not yet 65?
You can receive a
survivor's benefit as early as age 60. However, if you claim the benefit at
60, you will receive only 71.5% of the PIA. Each year you delay claiming
benefits, the amount will rise.
If you are caring
for the worker's child who is under age 16, you can receive a "mother's
benefit" (or a "father's benefit"). A surviving child under
18, or 19 if a full-time high school student, can also receive benefits.
If you are 50 or
over, and become disabled within 7 years of the worker's death or within 7
years after "mother's benefits" end, you can receive a survivor's
How long do
you need to have been married in order to receive a survivor's benefit?
You must have
been married to the worker for at least 9 months before his death, unless
you had or adopted his child, or unless his death was caused by a
remarry, will you lose your survivor's benefits?
If you were
divorced at the time of your ex-spouse's death, and you remarry before age
60, you will lose these benefits.
What if your
spouse died before reaching retirement age?
You will be
eligible for survivor's benefits only if he or she had earned enough work
credits at the time of death. You should apply for benefits, and the SSA
will determine whether you qualify on the basis of his or her earnings
What if your
spouse was already receiving retirement benefits when he died?
When your spouse
retired, it is likely the benefits were paid out in the form of an annuity
with "survivor's benefits"—what is called a
"joint-and-survivor annuity." Plans offered by companies are
required by law to offer this as the normal option.
This means that benefits
will automatically be paid in this form unless both the beneficiary and
spouse agree to waive their right to a survivor benefit. The signature
of the spouse agreeing to the waiver must either be witnessed by a pension
plan representative or be notarized. However, before 1986, a worker could
waive rights to a survivor benefit without spousal consent.
If you and your
spouse had chosen the survivor benefit, then the exact amount of your
monthly pension check depends on the benefit formula under your pension
plan. Most pension plans base your check on the number of years you worked
and your earnings. (Some look only at your last five years' earnings.) Your
monthly check may be reduced if you take early retirement. The monthly check
paid to all workers and spouses who choose early retirement is less than the
amount they would have received if they had not chosen the survivor benefit
because benefits are paid out over a longer period of time. If the pension
beneficiary (retired worker) dies first, however, you will be entitled to
receive benefit checks for the rest of your life.
As a surviving
spouse, you will most likely NOT be entitled to the full amount previously
paid to you and your spouse as a couple. During the retiree's lifetime, the
pension is paid only to him or her, even though it is theoretically
community property. Under federal law, the surviving spouse is entitled to a
minimum of 50% of the amount paid to the deceased worker. Specific plans may
provide higher benefits.
Why would any
couple choose to waive their right to a survivor benefit?
Waiver of a
joint-and-survivor benefit means that the retiree will receive a larger
monthly benefit, or other form of benefit that the plan may choose to offer,
e.g. lump- sum benefit, than he or she would otherwise receive under the
joint-and-survivor benefit option; the downside is that the pension will end
when the worker dies, and the surviving spouse will not be entitled to any
survivor benefit at all.
dependent spouse is entitled to an adequate pension on his or her own
account (or otherwise has adequate retirement income), or is ill and
unlikely to survive the spouse who is retiring, couples should consider
very carefully before signing a waiver to survivor benefits.
What if your
spouse died before beginning to receive pension benefits?
Your right to a
survivor benefit will depend on whether he or she was entitled to receive
pension benefits at retirement, i.e., was vested in the pension plan. In
order to become vested, or entitled to benefits, the worker must have been
employed for a certain period by the same employer (or within an industry
with an industry-wide pension plan) usually between five and fifteen years,
depending on the plan. If your spouse died before becoming entitled to
benefits, you will not receive a survivor benefit.
Once the worker
has become vested in the pension plan, the surviving spouse will be entitled
to survivor benefits even if the worker dies before receiving any retirement
benefits. (Prior to 1984, the survivor of a worker who died before retiring
was less likely to collect benefits.)
Your right to a pre-retirement survivor annuity is guaranteed unless you and
your husband explicitly waived your right to this benefit in writing.
How long would
you need to have been married, to be entitled to a survivor's benefit?
A pension plan
may state that you must have been married throughout the one-year period
preceding the annuity starting date or the date of the worker's death,
whichever came first. There is no penalty if you remarry after beginning to
Will you be
entitled to a survivor's benefit if your spouse retires from federal
The situation is
similar to that stated above regarding a company plan. The automatic
joint-and-survivor option means a somewhat reduced pension during your
husband's lifetime as a retiree, with a still smaller benefit paid during
the rest of your life as surviving spouse.
The survivor rules are slightly different for spouses of workers covered by
FERS, which mostly applies to workers hired after 1984. About half of
federal employees are now covered by FERS.
What if your
spouse dies before retirement?
If your spouse
died while still employed by the government, both you and your minor
children can receive survivor's benefits if: (1) he or she had been
employed by the government for at least 18 months; and (2) you were
married for at least one year at the time of his or her death, or were the
parent of his or her child.
It is a different
matter if your spouse died while no longer employed by the federal
government, yet before beginning to receive retirement benefits. In this
case, no survivor's benefits are available to you or to any minor
children. However, you may be eligible for a lump sum payment of his or her
retirement contributions (but not the government's contribution).
What if you
also work(ed) for the federal government?
You will be
entitled to collect both survivor's benefits and your own retirement
and Veterans' Benefits
What benefits are
available to surviving spouses of veterans or members of the armed forces?
Indemnity Compensation (DIC)
is paid to the surviving spouse of a member of the armed forces who died
while either in service or from a service-connected disability after being
honorably discharged. Such benefits are not reduced by any other income the
surviving spouse may have.
Service Pension may also be available to low-income surviving spouses of
a service person who served either a minimum of 90 days active service or at
least one day of "wartime" active service.
A small Aid
and Attendance benefit may also be available to assist survivors who are
either living in a nursing facility or are housebound.
What if you
If you do,
regardless of your age, you lose your veterans survivor benefits. If this
subsequent marriage ends, however, you may then apply or reapply for the