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Survivor Benefits for Senior Citizens

Updated on September 9, 2009

After the housing bust reduced my income to zero, I decided to apply for early Social Security benefits. I did not want to do so, and I planned on paying the benefits back when I could, so I could get full benefits at 66 years old.

So, I applied and I was surprised when the Social Security Administration contacted me with an option.

The Social Security representative suggested I take survivor benefits from my wife instead of early retirement benefits. I would only lose $13.00 a month in benefits but I would garner no penalty when I switched to my own higher benefits at age 66.

I did not know that I was eligible for survivor benefits. My wife died in 1994, and I had never remarried. I had not given a thought to any Social Security benefits that might accrue to me as a widower.

Survivor benefits, to some extent, are a vestige of one earner families. When Social Security was initiated, most wives did not work outside of the home. The system was designed to accommodate surviving widows and children after the death of the only bread winner in the household.

Over time, more and more wives began working outside the home and earning their own Social Security benefits. After a series of lawsuits challenging gender discrimination against male surviving spouses, so-called widows benefits became surviving spouse benefits and widowers were granted equal benefits to widows.

Obviously, to qualify your spouse must have passed away. If your spouse secured full coverage with four quarters of contributing to the system, as a widow or widower, you can receive survivor benefits.

You must be at least 60 years old to get benefits. If divorced you must have been married for at least 10 consecutive years. If not divorced, you must have been married for at least one year. You can remarry after age 60, and your benefits will not be affected.

When you apply, you must have your Social Security number, your birth certificate, your spouse's birth, your marriage certificate, your W-2 from the previous year or federal tax return if you are self-employed.

If you are still earning income, you will lose $1 for every $3 in excess earnings. The earnings limit now is $12,000 a year but that is subject to change.

These benefits are small consolation for the loss of a spouse, but they can be an important income source that some overlook. If you qualify and if you are earning less than $5000 a month, look into this benefit that your spouse earned through his or her hard work and contributions to the system.

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