After a loved one dies, beneficiaries need to know how to collect life insurance and Social Security payments they're entitled to, because the executor of the estate doesn't usually handle this task. Especially if survivors depended on the deceased person for financial support, they may need to quickly get cash for urgent, ongoing expenses such as the mortgage and credit card payments. Knowledgeable survivors can usually get access to many sources of cash, which may include life insurance or Social Security survivors benefits. To learn about other benefits that may be available to family members, see Claiming Pensions, Veterans, and Other Benefits: Information for Executors and Beneficiaries.
Life Insurance and Annuity Proceeds
An insurance policy or annuity is a contract between the company that sold it and the person who bought it. As a result, the proceeds don't go through the probate process (see How the Probate Process Works: Information for Executors), and the executor isn't in charge of them. It's common for the policy beneficiary, not the executor, to deal with the insurance company and collect the benefits directly. But executors may be called upon to help beneficiaries claim the payments they're entitled to.
Proceeds from life insurance policies can provide quick and welcome income for surviving family members after a death. The beneficiary will probably want to get the claim process started as soon as possible. You'll want to find out the answers to the following questions:
- What type of life insurance policies -- term, whole life, or variable life -- did the deceased have?
- Was there any credit insurance (to pay off credit card balances or, sometimes, amounts owing on major purchases such as furniture) or mortgage insurance (to pay off a mortgage)?
- Were the policies still in force at the time of death?
- Who are the beneficiaries?
- How much will the company pay?
To claim life insurance benefits, the beneficiary should contact the insurance company's local agent or check the company's website. Some companies ask beneficiaries to start by sending in a form that merely reports the death; they then send the beneficiary a packet of forms and instructions explaining how to proceed. Generally, a beneficiary can apply for the proceeds simply by filling out the insurance company's claim form and submitting it to the company along with a certified copy of the death certificate.
If more than one adult beneficiary was named, each should submit a claim form. If the primary beneficiary died before the policyholder did, then the alternate (contingent) beneficiary can claim the proceeds. An alternate will need to submit the death certificate of the primary beneficiary in addition to the death certificate of the policyholder.
Annuities, like life insurance policies, are contracts with insurance companies. Usually, annuities provide retirement income to the policy owner, but under certain circumstances they can result in payments to a beneficiary. Unlike most other nonretirement plan investments, the earnings on annuities are not taxed until they are distributed. As with life insurance policies, you'll want to find out some basic information on annuities:
- What annuity policies did the deceased have?
- What type of life annuities -- fixed or variable -- did the deceased own?
- Do the annuities have a death benefit (not all do)?
- Who are the beneficiaries?
- How much will the company pay? Typically the insurance company guarantees that when the owner dies, the beneficiary will receive the greater of the accumulated value of the annuity (including earnings) or the amount originally invested in the annuity, less distributions.
To claim annuity benefits after the policy owner dies, the beneficiary should request a claim form from the insurance company that issued the annuity. The beneficiary will need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate with the claim form.
Social Security Benefits: One-Time Death Benefit
The Social Security death benefit is relatively easy for surviving family members to claim and quick to be paid, but it is currently a small lump-sum payment of $255 (assuming the deceased person had enough Social Security work credits). The surviving spouse or dependent children can claim this benefit. This payment is in addition to ongoing survivors benefits to which the spouse or children may be entitled.
Go to the local Social Security office to claim benefits. The staff can help with the paperwork and explain what information and documents -- a certified copy of the death certificate, for example -- are needed. To find the closest office, check the government listings in the phone book, use the "How to Find Your Local Office" service at www.ssa.gov, or call the SSA, toll-free, at 800-772-1213.
Social Security Benefits: Monthly Survivors Benefits
Family members may also be entitled to monthly survivors benefits. You don't have to be of retirement age to receive benefits: dependent children, surviving spouses, and even some ex-spouses may be eligible for survivors benefits. The more quickly family members apply for these benefits, the better, because some of them are not retroactive.
Applicants can start the application process over the telephone (800-772-1213) or online at www.ssa.gov, which may speed things up, but they won't be able to complete the process without a face-to-face meeting with a staffer at an SSA office. Generally speaking, the following family members may be entitled to monthly survivors benefits.
Surviving spouses. A surviving spouse who is already receiving Social Security benefits based on the deceased person's earnings just needs to report the death to the SSA at 800-772-1213. The SSA will change monthly benefits to survivors benefits. If the spouse is already getting benefits, the SSA will check to see whether or not the survivors benefit would be higher. The spouse will receive the higher amount.
A surviving spouse who is not already getting benefits or is receiving benefits based on his or her own earnings record will need to apply for survivors benefits. Eligibility for survivors benefits will depend on the survivor's age and family circumstances. Benefits are given to any surviving spouse who:
- takes care of the deceased person's child who is under 16 or disabled (this is commonly called the "mother's benefit" or "father's benefit")
- is 60 or over, or
- is 50 or older and becomes disabled within seven years of the worker's death or within seven years after the mother's or father's benefit ends.
Former spouses. Generally, divorced spouses are eligible for benefits under the same rules as surviving spouses, if the marriage lasted at least ten years and the divorced spouse does not remarry before age 60. If, however, the ex-spouse is taking care of the deceased person's young or disabled children, it doesn't matter how long the marriage lasted.
Unmarried children. Dependent children of the deceased person are eligible for benefits if either of the following apply:
- They are 17 or younger (or up to age 19 if they are attending high school full time). Grandchildren and stepchildren may also be eligible under certain circumstances.
- They are disabled, no matter what their age, and became disabled before age 22.
If children are already receiving benefits, the SSA will change the benefits to survivors benefits after the family notifies the SSA of the death.
Dependent parents. Parents who depended on the deceased worker for at least half of their support and who are at least 62 years old are also eligible for benefits.
For More Information
For a detailed explanation of survivors benefits, see Social Security, Medicare & Government Pensions, by Joseph Matthews, with Dorothy Matthews Berman (Nolo). For more information on claiming insurance and Social Security benefits -- and everything else you need to know about settling an estate -- get The Executor's Guide: Settling A Loved One's Estate or Trust, by Mary Randolph (Nolo).