Don’t forget about survivors’ benefits

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 6, 2004

What you don’t know about Social Security benefits can rob you of your financial security as you approach retirement.

Last August, when I traveled to New Orleans, I invited my cousin as my guest. The trip was a long one so we had plenty of time to talk.

Like me, she lost her husband in October 1998. Both of our spouses died at age 57, just a few years before they would have been old enough to retire and reap the fruits of their working years.

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When we were talking, she mentioned she was receiving a survivor’s pension from her husband’s Social Security insurance since he didn’t live to reach retirement age. I was surprised that she could draw any kind of Social Security while still employed. She then told me that I could do the same when I turned 60 and advised me to visit the Social Security office about three months before my birthday.

When I did so, what I learned made turning that age seem even sweeter.

Apparently, a lot of people don’t really understand the survivors’ benefits portion of their Social Security benefits.

Last weekend, I attended the 17th Biennial National Conclave of Les Gemmes Inc. at the Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel. It was sponsored by the Elizabeth River Chapter from Elizabeth City, N.C., and about 200 women representing 20 states attended.

Our national president, Shirline Johnson from Atlanta, Ga., encouraged us to meet, greet and make new friends during the weekend. While doing so, I met two recently widowed women who were unaware of benefits that they can receive from their spouse’s Social Security while they are still employed after age 60.

After I left that conclave, a little voice told me to write a column to make people aware of their survivors’ benefits. The government will make sure that its gets fair share – so why shouldn’t you get all you are entitled to?

Both men and women are eligible to receive Social Security benefits if their spouses earned enough credits while working. Other family members may also be included.

The eligibility list of those who should receive survivors’ benefits includes:

(a) A widow or widower who is 60 or older;

(b) A widow or widower who is 50 or older and disabled;

(c) A widow or widower at any age if she or he is caring for a child under age 16 or a disabled child who is receiving Social Security benefits;

(d) Children if they are unmarried and under age 18; under age 19 but in an elementary or secondary school as a full-time student; or age 18 or older and severely disabled (the disability must have started before age 22;

(e) Your parents if they were dependent on you for at least half of their support.

If you had enough credits, a special one-time payment of $255 also will be made after your death. This benefit is paid only to your widow, widower or minor children.

Many spouses also believe that once they have started receiving these benefits, they would be cut off if they ever decided to remarry. Not true. You may still be eligible to receive them if you remarry.

If you are employed and receiving benefits while you are working and if your paycheck increases, you have to report it to the Social Security office because your benefit will have to be decreased. By the same token, if your financial status decreases for any reason, you should still report it because this situation will cause your benefits to increase.

In other words, while you are receiving survivors’ benefits and your financial status changes in any way, it always has to be reported.

Each case has to be reviewed, processed and settled individually and benefits received will all depend on what your spouse paid into it and what your income is.

Another situation that I was informed about at the Social Security office is that when I reach retirement age and file my Social Security information, if it does not pay as much as my spouse’s will pay, I can choose to receive the one that pays the higher benefit.

To learn more about survivors’ benefits, go to the Social Security Web site, at You can also check out a web link dedicated to helping women,, or get the pamphlet, &uot;What Every Woman Should Know about Social Security,&uot; from the local office.

For additional assistance phone 1-800-772-1213 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The local office is located off Route 10 at 502 Hillpoint Blvd., or by calling 934-0532.

I also talked with Judith Slack, public affairs specialist in the Norfolk office, who said she is willing to speak to people or groups wanting more information concerning survivor benefits. She can be reached at 858-6220.

Evelyn Wall is a staff writer and a regular News-Herald columnist. She can be contacted at 934-9615 or via e-mail at