Blog

May 14, 2018

Social Security Survivor Benefits for Children of a Deceased Person


Considering the number of opioid-related deaths in West Virginia, inquiries about survivor benefits for children have become more frequent. Determining potential eligibility for survivor benefits involves ‘Social Security Math,’ something far different from good old-fashioned arithmetic.

Child survivor benefits are paid under the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (RSDI) Program. Contrary to popular belief, benefits under RSDI are not an automatic entitlement upon the death of a parent; eligibility for survivor benefits is determined based on whether the decedent was “insured” for RSDI purposes. If the parent was “insured” then the child is potentially eligible; however, if the parent received SSI or had a marginal work or earnings history, it is likely the child will not qualify under the decedent’s record.

For a dependent child to be eligible for survivor benefits on a deceased parent’s record, the decedent would have had to have accumulated at least one quarter of qualifying earnings[1] for each calendar year from the year after he became 21 to the year before he died. (Earnings prior to age 22 do not factor into the eligibility equation.)

Example 1:

  • Bob died and left one dependent child behind.
  • Bob was born January 1, 1985 and was 32 years of age when he died December 31, 2017.
  • Bob’s lookback period is from the time he turned 22 through the year before he died.
  • Bob was age 22 in 1987, so from 2007 through 2016 (the year before the year in which he died), Bob must have earned at least one quarter of qualifying earnings for each of those 10 years to be “insured” for RSDI purposes.

If Bob has at least one credit in each of the 10 years OR if Bob has a total of 10 credits, then possibly the child would be eligible for survivor benefits.

Example 2:

  • Mary died and left one dependent child behind.
  • Mary was born in 1990 and died in 2011 at age 21.
  • Mary’s lookback period would be from the time she turned 22 through the year before she died. Since Mary died before age 22, there are no qualified earnings upon which she is insured. Mary’s child is not eligible for survivor benefits.

Example 3:

  • Sue died and left three dependent children behind.
  • Sue was born in 1989 and died in 2018 at age 29.
  • Sue’s only source of income from age 22 forward was SSI. Therefore, Sue had no qualified earnings upon which she could be insured, so her children are not eligible for survivor benefits.

Example 4:

  • Joe died and left two dependent children behind.
  • Joe was born in 1974 and died in 2016 at age 42.
  • Joe spent 10 years in the penitentiary on drug charges. When he was not incarcerated, Joe worked fast food jobs, never worked full time, and never worked more than a week or two each time he did work.
  • Joe’s lookback period would be from the time he turned 22 in 1996 until 2015 (the year before the year in which he died), or 19 years. Joe was incarcerated from 2000-2010.
  • Because Joe didn’t make much money, and because he was incarcerated for 10 years, Joe does not have 19 quarters of work needed to be “insured” for RSDI purposes. Accordingly, his children are not eligible for survivor benefits.

When an application for survivor benefits is made, SSA will review the decedent’s record to see if he is “insured” under RSDI. If insured, it is likely SSA may award survivor benefits, assuming the applicant meets all eligibility standards. Of course, if uninsured, then the survivor is not eligible to receive survivor benefits.

You may address any questions you may have to SSA by calling (800) 772-1213, by visiting your local SSA office, or by visiting http://www.ssa.gov.


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