Senior Living



Social Security and You: What to Do When Someone Dies

Tom Margenau on

Q: I know you've written columns about how to handle Social Security affairs after someone dies. In fact, I had clipped one of those columns and saved it. But now I can't find it. Sadly, my husband, who is in hospice care, isn't expected to live long. Could you possibly send me a copy of that column? (And just so you know, we are both in our 80s. We each get our own Social Security. But my husband's benefit is more than mine.)

A: I'm sorry to hear about your husband. I'm going to update that column, with your situation in mind, and run it again. (And I'm also emailing you a copy of this updated column.) And I don't mind repeating the information from that column because I get emails every week from people asking what to do when a spouse or relative dies.

The first issue I will cover is what to do with the final Social Security check for the deceased. And to do so, I must start out making three points. First, Social Security checks are paid one month behind. So, for example, the check you get in September is the benefit payment for August.

Second, the law says you must be alive for an entire month to get a Social Security check for that month.

And third, Social Security benefits have never been prorated. People don't like this rule because the Social Security check for the month of death must be returned. For example, if your husband dies on Sept. 28, you would not be due the proceeds of that September Social Security check (normally paid in October) even though he was alive for 28 days of the month.

But there is a flip side to this lack of proration rule. If your husband did die on Sept. 28, you would be due widow's benefits for the whole month of September, even though you were a widow for only three days of the month.

And as I've explained many times in my column, the lack of proration can help out when someone first starts getting Social Security. For example, if your husband took benefits at age 66 and he turned 66 on April 30 of some past year, he would have received a check for the whole month of April even though he was 66 for only one day of the month.

So, to repeat, when your husband dies, the Social Security check for the month of death must be returned. But that's only if you get the check in the first place.


I added that qualifier because there is a very good chance the check won't even show up in your bank account. As you maybe have heard, there are all kinds of computer-matching operations that go on between various government agencies and banks. So, if the Treasury Department learns of a person's death in time, they won't even issue the Social Security benefit. Or, if the check was issued, the bank will likely intercept the payment and return it to the government before it even hits your checking account. In other words, you usually don't have to worry about returning any Social Security checks. It's almost always done for you.

There can be a little twist to this scenario, though. For example, let's say that your husband dies on Oct. 2. And let's further say that his Social Security check was normally sent to him on the third of each month. In other words, your husband died just before his Social Security check was deposited into his bank account. Because he was alive the whole month of September, that means he was due the money from that September check. And now you, as his widow, are due that money. Sometimes bank officials will sort of just wink at you and let you keep the proceeds of that last Social Security check. But if they follow the letter of the law, that September Social Security benefit (paid on Oct. 3) would have to be returned to the Social Security Administration. Then it will be reissued to you in your name. (There is a form that needs to be filled out to get that to happen. You'd have to talk to an SSA rep about that.)

So far, I've been talking about dealing with the last Social Security check that was sent to your husband. Now let's talk about getting any Social Security widow's benefits that will be due. Because you said his benefit is more than yours, after he dies, your benefit will be bumped up to whatever he was getting at the time of death. For example, if he was getting $2,800 per month and you are getting $2,100, after he dies, you will start getting $700 in widow's benefits to take your total benefits up to his $2,800 level.

You will have to contact the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to file a widow's claim. (For reasons too complicated to explain in this column, widow's claims must be filed in person.) At the same time, you will file a claim for that measly little one-time death benefit of $255. (I've written past columns about why that so-called death benefit is so small.) You will probably need to provide two bits of documentation: a copy of your marriage papers and a death certificate.

There may be some women reading this column who are not getting their own Social Security, but instead are getting only spousal benefits on their husband's account. If that is you, when your husband dies, no widow's application is required. You would simply notify the SSA that your husband died, and they just push few buttons to automatically switch you from wife's benefits to widow's benefits. As part of the process, you may have to provide a copy of the death certificate. I say "may have to provide" because there is a chance the SSA will already have some proof of death in their files. And you don't need to provide a marriage certificate because you already did that back when you filed for spousal benefits.


If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has two books with all the answers. One is called "Social Security -- Simple and Smart: 10 Easy-to-Understand Fact Sheets That Will Answer All Your Questions About Social Security." The other is "Social Security: 100 Myths and 100 Facts." You can find the books at or other book outlets. 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

Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate, Inc.




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