Social Security provides benefits not only to retired and disabled workers, but also to families of workers who have passed away. Those benefits include a one-time payment at the time of death. This Social Security "death benefit" isn't much -- as of 2012, it was just $255, an amount that hadn't changed in 30 years. Still, every dollar counts for a family in need.
Social Security will pay a death benefit only if the deceased person had worked and paid Social Security taxes long enough to become eligible for benefits. In most cases, that means the person worked for at least 10 years. It doesn't matter whether the deceased was actually collecting Social Security at the time of his death. Social Security pays only one death benefit per worker, either to a spouse or to the worker's minor children.
A spouse living in the same household as the deceased person at the time of death is automatically eligible to receive the $255 death benefit. A spouse living apart from the deceased at the time of death is eligible only if that spouse was already getting "spousal benefits." Those are retirement benefits paid to people based on their spouse's work history rather than their own.
If there is no spouse eligible to collect, the death benefit can be divided equally among the deceased's minor children. Those children, however, must be eligible to receive "survivor benefits" based on the deceased's work record. That eligibility is based on how long the deceased worked and paid taxes. The younger the person was at the time of death, the less work time is required to qualify for survivor benefits. The maximum anyone has to work to qualify is 10 years. If there is neither a spouse nor any children eligible to receive the death benefit, then none will be paid.
Social Security will pay death benefits only to a person, never a creditor, a funeral home, an estate or any other party. Eligible beneficiaries have two years from the date of death to apply for the benefit. To apply, call (800) 772-1213 to set up an appointment at a local Social Security office.
Cam Merritt is a writer and editor specializing in business, personal finance and home design. He has contributed to USA Today, The Des Moines Register and Better Homes and Gardens"publications. Merritt has a journalism degree from Drake University and is pursuing an MBA from the University of Iowa.