Q. My mother never told Social Security when my dad died, and she’s been collecting his benefits for almost a year. What are we supposed to do?
— Not looking to cheat
A. We’re sorry to hear about your dad.
Dealing with the death and funeral arrangements of a loved one may be a lot to cope with emotionally for some people, and making a call or going to the Social Security office to report a death could be just as emotional, said Betty Thomas, a financial planner with Lassus Wherley in New Providence.
Often when making funeral arrangements, the family will ask the funeral home to contact Social Security to report the death of their loved one, Thomas said. Perhaps, your mother did not contact Social Security about your father’s death because she asked the funeral home to do it.
“Although it has been almost a year since his death, contact the funeral home and ask if they reported his death,” Thomas said. “If they did not, contact your local Social Security office to report it or call (800) 772-1213 to speak to a Social Security representative directly.”
Thomas said if your father’s death was not reported, the benefits received by your mother would have to be paid back to Social Security and she would not receive any further benefits until the full amount was returned.
“Once Social Security receives the death report, they would then calculate the survivor benefit that your mother is entitled to,” she said. “These dollars would be paid to her retroactively from the date she became eligible for survivor benefits, but again, not until she has paid back benefits received prior to reporting.”
You did not mention your mother’s age, but survivor benefits may start between age 60 and full retirement age, Thomas said.
So if your father’s death was not reported and your mother has returned benefit payments received, Social Security will now calculate what her benefit should be based on the survivor benefit and her age, Thomas said. If she is age 60 and chooses to receive benefits, it would be reduced. At her full retirement age, the benefit would higher.
You also mentioned that “she’s collecting his benefits,” Thomas said.
“If these benefits are in his name, then most likely his death was not reported,” she said.
If this is the case, Social Security should be contacted immediately. If Social Security suspects that your father is deceased and his checks are being cashed, this could lead to serious problems beginning with it being reported to the inspector general (OIG) of the Social Security Administration, Thomas said.
“Your mother’s oversight might be considered Social Security fraud which could lead to an unnecessary investigation by Social Security, court activity, financial penalties as well as full restitution,” Thomas said. “This would be the worst case scenario.”
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