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What to do about Social Security when someone dies
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Coincidentally, I received two questions on the same day dealing with the same topic. Each had a relative die and each asked, “What do I do about his Social Security?” 

The answer to this depends on many factors. So I thought I would use this column to provide a sort of laundry list of advice about dealing with Social Security when a friend or relative dies.

One of the first things someone should do is notify the Social Security Administration about the death. That usually would involve a simple phone call to SSA’s call center: 800-772-1213. 

There is a pretty good chance SSA is going to learn about the death through some other means — usually via a computer-matching arrangement with state and local government agencies. Still, it certainly wouldn’t hurt for someone to contact SSA.

What happens next depends primarily on whether or not there is a widow or widower, or possibly a minor child, potentially due benefits on the deceased’s account. I will start out discussing what happens when there is no one due benefits on an account. And I think it will be easiest to explain using examples.

Let’s say Sally was getting Social Security widow’s benefits and she died on Sept.19, 2016. Her sister, Ann, reports her death to SSA. And Ann also is probably wondering about her sister’s next Social Security check, the one due in October. She figures that because Sally was alive for half the month of September, the family should be due the proceeds of her September check — that’s the one payable in October.

But the government has never prorated Social Security checks. And the law says a person must be alive for an entire month to be due the check for that month. Because Sally died in September, her family is not due her September check, the check that would normally come in October. That check will probably not be deposited into Sally’s account anyway. But if it is, the proceeds from that check must be returned to the government.

And by the way, if you think the government is out to cheat a dying person out of his or her last Social Security check by not prorating benefits, you’ve got to understand that the lack of proration can help a person when benefits begin. In our example, Sally was getting widow’s benefits. Let’s say her husband died on March 29, 2012. Sally would have received a widow’s benefit for the whole month of March, even though she was a widow for only two days of the month.

Sally’s family also might be wondering if they are due the measly little one-time $255 death benefit from Social Security. The answer is no. That death benefit is only paid on the account of someone who had worked and earned their own Social Security benefit. For that matter, even if Sally was getting her own Social Security checks, the $255 payment could not be made to her family because the law says it can only be paid to a surviving spouse or a minor child.

Now I’m going to present another scenario to explain when a family would be due the proceeds of a last Social Security check. Let’s say Henry died on Sept. 4, about 10 days before his last Social Security check was due to be deposited in his banking account — on Sept. 14. (And remember, that is the check for August.) 

Because Henry was alive the entire month of August, he is due that August Social Security check. However, the bank is required by law to return it to the government. But the executor of Henry’s estate, or some close relative, can file for the proceeds of that check to be reissued in his or her name. 

All the situations I’ve discussed so far assumed the deceased didn’t leave a spouse or minor child eligible for benefits. But now we will follow some examples with those scenarios.

Jorge was getting Social Security retirement benefits when he died at age 88 on Sept. 10, 2016. His 85-year-old wife, Maria, was getting a spousal benefit on his record. Maria contacted Social Security to tell them about Jorge’s death. She also wanted to file for widow’s benefits and the $255 death benefit. She was correctly told that no claim was necessary. In this kind of situation, Maria will be automatically converted to widow’s benefits. As explained in the Sally example above, Jorge will not be due his September Social Security payment (normally payable in October) because he did not live the entire month of September. But Maria will start getting widow’s benefits effective with September — again, payable in October. There is a pretty good chance that by the time October rolls around, all the right buttons will have been pushed and Maria will get her first widow’s check. And that first payment will include the $255 death benefit.

And now let’s add a bit of a twist to the Jorge and Maria story. Let’s say that Maria was not getting spousal benefits, but rather was getting her own Social Security check. And her check was smaller than Jorge’s monthly payment. That means she is now due the difference between her own retirement check and Jorge’s check in widow’s benefits to be added to her own Social Security benefit amount. But in this case, she will NOT be automatically converted to widow’s benefits. Because she was getting her own retirement check, she has to actually file a claim for widow’s benefits and also file for the one-time death benefit.

One final twist. Let’s now say Maria was getting her own retirement check, but that it was higher than Jorge’s benefits. In this scenario, Maria would not be due any widow’s benefits — because her own benefit exceeds her potential widow’s rate. She would be due the one-time $255 death benefit, however.

And one final point in case you are wondering: In my last example, if Maria had died first, then Jorge would have been due widower’s benefits on Maria’s account — and the $255 death benefit.