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Pension Issues for Widows & Widowers

California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. 

How to Obtain Widow(er) Benefits

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 attorney.

Survivor 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 employment?

Did your spouse die before or after he or she began to receive retirement benefits from a pension plan?

Did the two of you ever sign a waiver indicating that you wanted to receive a pension only during his lifetime?

Social Security

How are Social Security benefits calculated?

Social Security 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.

Are you 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 benefit.

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 job-related accident.

If you 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 record.

Company or Industry Pension

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.

Unless the 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.)

Note: 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 receive benefits.

U.S. Civil Service Retirement

Will you be entitled to a survivor's benefit if your spouse retires from federal employment?

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.

Note: 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 pension.

Military Pensions and Veterans' Benefits

What benefits are available to surviving spouses of veterans or members of the armed forces?

Dependency and 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.

A "Wartime" 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 remarry?

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 survivor benefits.  

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