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OK, You’re Dead! Now What?

By Tom Margenau

January 29, 2020  

Several months ago, I wrote a column about how to handle Social Security matters when a loved one dies. I guess you all forgot to cut it out and paste it on your refrigerator, because I continually get questions about that topic. Here are some of the latest ones.

Q: For Christmas, my wife got me a clever little booklet titled, “So I’m dead … now what?” In effect, it’s a little journal I’m supposed to fill in with instructions to my wife and family about how to handle my affairs after I am gone. One of the sections is about Social Security. So, what do I put in that section? And just so you know, I’m 82, and I get $2,490 from Social Security. My wife is 78, and she gets $1,850.

A: Sometime after your death, your wife is going to have to contact the Social Security Administration to file for widows benefits. She should call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to file that claim over the phone or at your local Social Security office. (As a general rule, widows claims cannot be done online.)

How much will she get? At your ages, it’s easy. She’ll start getting what you were getting at the time of death. So, if you drop dead tomorrow (God forbid), she’d keep getting her $1,850 benefit, and she would get an additional $640 in widows benefits to take her up to your $2,490 rate.

And the issue of dealing with the last Social Security check always befuddles readers. So, here it is explained again. You have to start out by understanding two rules. Rule No. 1: Social Security benefits are always paid after the month is over. In other words, the check you get in February is the Social Security payment for January. And Rule No. 2: Social Security benefits are never prorated. So, you have to be alive every day of a month in order to be due a Social Security benefit for that month.

Here is an example. Let’s say you die on Sept. 25. The check that comes in October (which is the payment for September) will have to be returned. Actually, there is a pretty good chance the check might not even show up because banks are under instructions to return Social Security checks for deceased account holders. But let your wife and family know that if the check does appear in your bank account, the funds have to be returned.

People often complain about this lack of proration of Social Security checks. But what they don’t understand is it can often work to your and your family’s advantage. For example, let’s say you started your Social Security at age 66 and that you turned 66 on June 22. You would have received a Social Security check for the whole month of June even though you were 66 for only eight days of the month. Also, if you do die on Sept. 25, your wife is going to get a widows benefit for the whole month of September even though she was a widow for only the last five days of the month.

Q: My husband passed away unexpectedly on Nov. 25. He received his last Social Security check on Nov. 27. When I called the Social Security 800 number on Dec. 5, the lady I talked to told me not to withdraw the funds because that money was going to be returned to the government. She said once that happened, I could then fill out a form to have the check reissued in my name. She also explained to me that when I turn 60 (I am now 58), I should check into filing for widows benefits.

Just before Christmas, I went into our local Social Security office to explain to them that the money from that Nov. 27 check was still sitting in our bank account. The nice, seemingly knowledgeable man I talked to said, “It’s yours. Go ahead and use the money any way you want.”

It is now more than a month later, and I still haven’t touched that money. I’m afraid that if I spend it, they will turn around and ask for it back. So how come I got two different answers from the Social Security clerks? And what should I do?

A: I am sorry to hear about your husband’s untimely death. And I’m also sorry you got two different answers from Social Security agents. But in a way, both of them were right — at least at the time you talked to each one of them. I will explain.

That check that came on Nov. 27 was the payment for October. And because your husband was alive the entire month of October, he was due the proceeds from that check. Which means now, as his widow, you are due that money. But how you get your hands on that money can be a little tricky.

Legally, what should have happened is this: The bank was supposed to return that check to the Treasury Department because it came after your husband died. Then you, in turn, would have to file a claim with the SSA to have the check reissued in your name. (That’s what the first agent told you.)

But sometimes banks play a little loose with the rules. I’ve found this usually happens in small towns or in situations where you have been a customer with the bank for a long time. They know that you are going to end up with the money anyway, so they may decide not to bother returning the check and just let you keep the money. (And that’s what the second agent told you.)

You might want to go to your bank and talk with an official there. Explain your situation and find out if they plan to return the check. If they do, go back to the SSA and fill out the form to get the check reissued in your name. If the bank says the money is yours to keep, well, they saved you some paperwork, and the money is yours.

Q: My mother was getting widows benefits and recently died. We returned her last check, but when I asked about the $255 death benefit, they said I’m not due it. Why not?

A: That miserly little one-time death benefit of $255 used to be paid to anyone who filed for it anytime a Social Security beneficiary died. But a while back, Congress changed the rules. It can only be paid on the account of someone who worked and paid Social Security taxes, and it can only be paid to a spouse who was living with the deceased at the time of death.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net. To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.