One of the retirement income components of the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) is Social Security.
FERS-covered employees are covered by and pay into Social Security, and after paying into Social Security for most of their working years, they are eligible for a monthly Social Security retirement check starting as early as age 62.
However, when a “fully insured” employee – an individual who has earned at least 40 credits of Social Security during his or her working career – dies, survivor benefits can be paid to eligible family members such as a surviving spouse and perhaps a surviving ex-spouse. This column discusses the Social Security “widow/widower” benefit paid to surviving spouses and to ex-spouses.
Amount of a Widow/Widower Benefit
The widow/widower Social Security survivor benefit is equal to 100 percent of the deceased spouse’s monthly retirement benefit at the deceased spouses’s full retirement age (FRA). FRA is between ages 65 and age 67, depending on when an individual was born. For individuals born between 1943 and 1954, FRA is age 66.
For individuals born after 1959, FRA is age 67 and for individuals born between 1955 and 1959, FRA is 66 years 2 months increasing to age 66 years and 10 months. The survivor benefit may be more because the deceased spouse delayed receiving his or her Social Security benefit past FRA, thereby increasing the Social Security retirement benefit 8 percent per year until age 70. These increases are called delayed retirement credits (DRCs).
But a spousal survivor Social Security benefit may in fact be reduced if any of the following conditions apply:
- A reduction is necessary because other family members are eligible for survivor benefits and the overall family maximum survivor benefit applies;
- The widow/widower chooses to receive and is paid a reduced benefit for months before reaching his or her FRA;
- The deceased spouse was entitled to a reduced retirement benefit for the month before the month he or she died;
- The widow/widower is a CSRS annuitant, or a retiree from a state or city government. The widow/widower is receiving a public pension in which he or she did not pay into Social Security and is subject to the Government Pension Offset or Public Pension Offset, which reduces and more likely eliminates a Social Security spousal survivor benefit if the public pension (a defined benefit plan) is large enough in amount.
Who Is Entitled to a Social Security Spousal Survivor Benefit?
An individual is entitled to a Social Security spousal survivor benefit if: (1) He or she is either at least age 60 or between age 50 and age 60, disabled, and meet the disability-related requirements; (2) his or her deceased spouse had at least 40 credits of Social Security; (3) he or she has filed an application for survivor benefits; (4) he or she did not remarry before age 60; and (5) either one of the following apply: (a) he or she was married to the deceased spouse for at least nine months before the spouse died; or (b) he or she and the deceased spouse are the parents of a child – either born to them or legally adopted.
Note that there are exceptions to the nine month duration of marriage requirement. The exceptions are: (1) The spouse’s death was accidental; (2) the spouse’s death occurred in the line of duty while he or she was a member of a Uniformed Service and serving on active duty; and (3) the widow/widower was previously married to the deceased spouse and the previous marriage lasted at least nine months.
With respect to “accidental death”, the deceased spouse’s death is considered to be accidental only if: (1) He or she received bodily injuries through violent, external and accidental means; (2) the deceased spouse died within three months after the day that the injuries were received; and (3) the deceased spouse’s death was a direct result of the bodily injuries, independent of all other causes.
Definition of Widow/Widower
An individual is considered to be a widow/widower of the deceased spouse if any of the following are true at the time the spouse died: (1) They were validly married under applicable state law; or (2) they would have the status of widow/widower with respect to the distribution of intestate personal property under applicable state law.
Surviving Divorced Spouse
A surviving spouse who was married to a deceased spouse for at least 10 years before the divorce became final is entitled to the deceased former spouse’s Social Security benefits if the surviving ex-spouse: (1) Is at least age 60 or between age 50 and age 60, disabled, and meets the disability-related requirements; (2) the deceased former spouse was entitled to Social Security benefits; and (3) the surviving ex-spouse does not remarry before age 60.
Applying for Social Security Spousal Survivor Benefits
Upon the death of a spouse or an ex-spouse, a widow/widower (an ex-widow/widower) should contact the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 and find out what has to be done to start receiving spousal survivor benefits. The widow/widower (ex-widow/widower) will most likely have to go to a Social Security office and bring certain documents (birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage license and if applicable, a copy of the divorce decree).
Termination of Social Security Spousal Survivor Benefits
An individual’s Social Security spousal survivor benefit will be terminated when: (1) He or she dies; (2) he or she becomes eligible for a Social Security retirement benefit that is larger than the deceased spouse’s or ex-spouse’s Social Security benefit; or (3) if he or she remarries and is a disabled individual who started receiving a spousal Social Security survivor benefit sometime after age 50 and before age 60.
When a Social Security Spousal Survivor Benefit is Not Payable
A Social Security spousal survivor benefit may not be payable for some or any months if any of the following conditions apply to the widow/widower:
- Is younger than FRA, working and earning more than the annual exempt amount ($17,640 during 2019);
- is under FRA and working outside the US for more than 45 hours in a month;
- is an alien who is outside the US for more than six full calendar months in a row and does not meet an exception to the alien nonpayment provisions or does not meet the additional US residency requirements for dependents and survivors;
- is in a US Treasury-restricted county where the SSA cannot send US government payments;
- is in a SSA-restricted country and does not meet an exception;
- is an alien who is outside the US and was deported;
- is entitled to a large government pension (federal, state or a political subdivision of a state), not covered by Social Security based on his or her own employment and the government pension offset – the Government or Public Pension Offset – reduces and subsequently eliminates the Social Security survivor benefit payment;
- is confined within the US to a correctional institution for more than 30 days as a result of a conviction of a criminal offense;
- does not have a Social Security number and refuses to apply for one; and (10) is in the US and is neither a US citizen nor a lawfully present alien.