Dear Carrie: I'm a 45-year-old widow with two children, ages 13 and 10. Since my husband passed away three months ago, I've been working part time and trying to hold things together. I haven't applied for survivor benefits from Social Security yet, because it all seems so complicated. Should I? And how much will I receive? -- A Reader
Dear Reader: My heart goes out to you and your children. The death of a spouse is probably one of the most stressful times in life at any age. Being young and now solely responsible for your kids makes it all the more so. There's so much to think about and so many details to handle that I totally understand your delaying dealing with Social Security.
But in spite of the complications, it's worth the effort, because survivor benefits act as a kind of life insurance for you and your family. In fact, according to the Social Security Administration, Social Security pays more benefits to children than any other federal program. However, to get these benefits, you have to be proactive.
It's probably best to meet with a representative at your local Social Security office for help with the specifics of your situation, but I can give you some basics as a starting point.
BENEFITS AVAILABLE FOR A SURVIVING SPOUSE
Whether or not a surviving spouse is eligible for Social Security survivor benefits depends on age and circumstances. In general, a widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if disabled) is eligible, provided you were married at least nine months. However, there's no age limit if you're caring for dependent children under age 16.
Also, the deceased spouse has to have been "fully insured" at the time of death, which generally requires 40 Social Security work credits or 10 years of work. (This is reduced for young workers.) So it appears that at 45 with two small children, you would qualify for survivor benefits, assuming your husband was working.
The size of your benefit will depend on your husband's lifetime earnings; the more he paid into Social Security over the years, the more you'll get -- up to a maximum that is adjusted each year for inflation.
However, the amount you get also depends on your age. In general, a surviving spouse at full retirement age receives 100 percent of basic benefits; at age 60 or older, but under full retirement age, a spouse receives 77 to 99 percent of benefits; at any age under 60, when caring for children younger than 16, a spouse receives 75 percent of benefits.
For the record, Social Security survivor benefits stop if you remarry before age 60. Also, ex-spouses can qualify for survivor benefits under certain circumstances.