What If Social Security Keeps Sending Checks After the Beneficiary Dies?

While Social Security benefit payments are supposed to stop after a recipient dies, the Social Security Administration handles payments for over 60 million beneficiaries each month, and with that kind of volume, mistakes are bound to happen.

In some cases, Social Security doesn’t realize someone has died right away, and it will keep sending payments for a month or two after the payments should have stopped. Less frequently, Social Security has been alerted to a death but erroneously keeps paying benefits, sometimes for months or even years.

Social Security’s mistakes will eventually become the family member’s problem. Next of kin are legally required to alert Social Security to the recipient’s death immediately and not spend any benefits erroneously paid. Once Social Security notices that it has overpaid (and it eventually will), it will either deduct the overpayments from the account it was sent to and/or sue whoever cashed the checks or withdrew the money.

Wondering which Social Security payments can be legally kept after someone dies? 
Check out  “A Social Security Beneficiary Dies: Which Payments Can Be Kept?” to find out!

The tragic part is some surviving spouses don’t apply for survivor’s benefits right away because they are still receiving benefits issued to the deceased spouse. Benefits issued to the deceased spouse are not survivor’s benefits and will be reclaimed eventually by Social Security as happened in the case of Mary and Frank.

Mary and Frank had been married for over 30 years. Prior to his death at age 70, Frank had been receiving Social Security payments on his work record. At the time of her husband’s death, Mary was 60 years old and would have immediately been entitled to survivor’s benefits from Social Security. But—Mary didn’t immediately apply for survivor’s benefits. After Frank’s death, she was overwhelmed and didn’t realize she wasn’t allowed to keep payments that kept arriving in the bank account she had shared with her husband.  

Six months later, Social Security realized it made a mistake and deducted six months worth of payments from the bank account, leaving Mary’s account overdrawn. When she rushed to the Social Security office to explain that she was Frank’s surviving spouse and was entitled to survivor’s benefits, the Social Security agent informed her that she was indeed entitled to survivor’s benefits but because she had not reached full retirement age, the benefits only start from the date she applied for them, not the date she could have applied for them. So even though Mary could have applied for and started receiving survivor’s benefits immediately after Frank died, she was not entitled to retroactive payments.  (NOTE: If Mary was older than full retirement age (i.e. over 66) and didn’t immediately apply for survivor’s benefits, she would be entitled to at least some retroactive benefits.)

The Social Security Administration will repossess overpayments to the deceased recipient even if the surviving spouse could have received the same amount legally in the form of survivor’s benefits. When the surviving spouse later applies for survivor’s benefits, the benefits only start from the day the spouse applies for the benefits. Social Security does not issue back payments.  

Don’t lose out on payments that you are entitled to! Apply as soon as you can for any survivor’s benefits you may be eligible to receive.

Janice TamComment