Is a Widow Entitled to a Deceased Husband's Pension Benefits?

By: Stephanie Faris | Reviewed by: Alicia Bodine, Certified Ramsey Solutions Master Financial Coach | Updated May 03, 2019

At one time, pensions were standard fare in America. A worker spent the majority of his adult life working for an employer and retired with a percentage of that income continuing to come in. There are still some U.S. employers who pay a pension, primarily in the public sector, and if the pension holder dies, that person’s widow can usually access his benefits.

Tip

A widow may be entitled to a deceased spouse’s retirement benefits, depending on how the beneficiary was listed on the enrollment plan and the person’s marital status at the time of death.

Pension After Death of Husband

When a person signs up for a pension, it comes with guidelines and restrictions for claiming that pension at the time of retirement. That fine print can vary from one employer to the next and also depends whether the employer was a private company, government agency or the military. At the time of signup, the employee should be asked to designate a beneficiary, and that person gets the pension in the event the primary person on the plan dies.

That is where things get a little complicated. If your husband didn’t update his beneficiary after you were married, you may have a tough time getting that pension, depending on the guidelines. By default, pension generally goes to a spouse, but if someone else is named on that line, the plan may be directed to issue those benefits to that person, regardless of your status as his surviving spouse.

Pension After Husband Death

If your spouse worked for one of the few remaining employers who offer pensions today, your benefits will depend on where your spouse worked and his retirement status at the time of his death. The benefits provider will also look to make sure you didn’t sign a waiver of your rights to your spouse’s benefits at some point.

In some cases, a spouse dies while still employed, with that pension serving as a promise for a retirement that will never come. When that happens, the surviving spouse will be issued those benefits, either as a lump sum or as a bridge pension that ends when your husband would have reached his 65th birthday. Again, this is something that can vary from one pension plan to another so it’s important to read your spouse’s paperwork for details.

Joint and Survivor Versus Monthly

Another factor determining whether you’ll get private pension payments after death is the option your late husband chose when he signed up for the retirement plan. At the time he signed up, he would have been given the choice to receive a monthly payout based on his life expectancy or the option of a joint and survivor benefit option. The latter ensures that you, the survivor, are taken care of after death.

Chances are, you have no idea which option your husband chose. You should be able to get this information from the plan administrator or your husband’s employer. In addition, plans will often give enrollees options on what percentage will go to the surviving spouse in the event of a death. Anyone enrolled in a retirement plan should check to make sure that survivors will be covered in the event of a death.

Military Pension After Husband Death

Unlike other pensions, a military retiree’s pension ends upon his death. To take care of survivors, the military offers a form of insurance called a Survivor Benefit Plan, which issues a monthly payment to survivors in the event of a member’s death. Your spouse would have paid a monthly premium for this benefit, which took effect at the time of his retirement.

In addition to providing a pension to a spouse and/or children after death, the SBP also protects pensions against increases in inflation. The survivor receives a cost-of-living adjustment on payments from one year to the next. Survivors of wartime veterans may also be eligible for something called a VA Survivor’s Pension, which is a tax-free benefit to surviving spouses and ex-spouses who never remarried.

Social Security for Widows

Every American with a Social Security number should be eligible for at least some retirement benefits in the form of Social Security payments. However, the amount of those benefits depends on how many years each person worked, calculated in the form of credits. Your husband would have earned up to four credits each year he worked.

You and your children will be entitled to your late spouse’s Social Security benefits, based on the credits he earned before his death. The younger your late spouse was at the time of his death, the fewer credits he will have to have earned for you to be eligible for survivor’s benefits. Every situation is different, so it’s important that, in addition to checking on your widow pension, you also get in touch with the Social Security Administration to discuss what benefits you and any surviving children can receive.

Spouse Death and 401(k) Plans

Many employers have replaced pension plans with 401(k) options, which they either contribute to or leave completely up to the employee to fund. When checking into a pension after death of husband, you may find that this type of plan was in place. Spouses are entitled to a person’s 401(k) account after death, even if you’ve been separated for years.

When you receive your late spouse’s 401(k), you’ll have three options: roll it over into another type of account such as an IRA, keep the account in place to take out once you’re ready to retire or cash it out. You also have the option to decline the 401(k).

IRA Accounts and Spouse Death

Another common retirement account type these days is an IRA. As with private pension payments after death, your benefits depend on the person listed on your late spouse’s beneficiary designation form. It’s important to note that even if you were divorced at the time of your ex-spouse’s death, if you or your children were listed on that form, the designation will be honored.

As with a 401(k), you’ll have several options as an IRA beneficiary. You can keep the IRA, roll it into a personal IRA, convert it to a Roth IRA, take the cash payout or disclaim it. It’s important to note that taking IRA or 401(k) payouts before the minimum retirement age could result in a hefty penalty, and you’ll likely owe taxes, which could push you into a higher tax bracket.

Pension After Death of Ex-Husband

Divorce doesn’t necessarily mean you lose rights to your ex-husband’s pension. It all depends on how the court ruled during proceedings. Whether you’re tracking down government, military or private pension payments after death, a court order goes a long way toward getting pension benefits. A pension is considered a marital asset, so it needs to be listed along with all other shared marital assets when you go in front of the judge.

When a pension is ordered to be divided, this is done at the time of divorce. You’ll be issued something called a qualified domestic relations order, which you should have submitted to your husband’s plan right away. You can submit a QDRO later, but you’ll only get payments from that point forward, so if your ex-spouse retired before you submitted it, you’ll have lost any payments you should have gotten in those earlier years.

Social Security for Ex-Wives

Although a widow pension is designated for the current spouse of the deceased, Social Security doesn’t have that same restriction. If you were married to someone for 10 years or longer, you may be entitled to a portion of your ex-husband’s Social Security even if he’s still alive. The following will need to apply:

  • You’ll need to be aged 62 or older
  • You should be unmarried at the time you apply
  • Your ex-spouse is entitled to either retirement or disability Social Security benefits
  • Your own Social Security entitlement is lower than the benefits you’d receive from your ex-spouse

What benefits will you receive? You’ll get one-half of your ex-spouse’s full retirement amount, assuming you wait until full retirement age to begin taking those benefits. This applies even if your ex-husband is currently married or was married at the time of his death. If at any time, you were married for 10 years or longer and you’ve reached age 62, it’s worth contacting the Social Security Administration to find out if you should be receiving benefits on a spouse, late spouse or ex-spouse.

Pension Plans and Taxes

If you do receive part of a deceased spouse’s retirement plan, it’s important to take tax obligations into account. In many cases, you’ll follow the same rules your late spouse would have followed in reporting the retirement income. This means that you’ll usually report the amount coming to you as income, but there are exceptions to this for a surviving spouse.

If you’re getting a survivor annuity as a spouse of an employee who died, you can exclude some of that money in order to recover the employee’s investment into that plan. You may also be subject to an exclusion if you’re receiving nonperiodic distributions designed to keep the payer from needing to pay an annuity. In each case, you’ll have to calculate the amount of the payment that is tax-free and report the rest.

Child Survivor Benefits

You may not be the only survivor entitled to a pension after death of husband. With pensions or other retirement accounts, a child may also be listed as a beneficiary. Although this can be stipulated in a will, payers will often look at the terms of the plan to determine whether children are entitled to a portion of the benefits. You as the spouse could have waived your rights to the pension and designated them to go to your children instead, but this will have to be done ahead of time.

Like spouses, surviving children are also eligible for a parent’s Social Security benefits. The child will need to be under the age of 18, or up to age 19 for full-time elementary and secondary school students. Adult children who are disabled may be also eligible for these benefits, as long as the disability began before the age of 22.

Widow Retirement Benefits and Remarriage

One thing to consider after you start receiving a widow pension is how remarriage will affect those benefits. This can vary from one plan to another, but some retirement plans specifically state that if the widow remarries, the survivor’s benefits end. There may be an age ceiling on this, so you could find that you simply can’t remarry until you reach a certain age.

Your marital status can also affect your eligibility for your late spouse’s Social Security benefits. While you’re married to the new spouse, you’ll be unable to receive payments on your previous spouse’s Social Security earnings. However, if you remarry after the age of 60, you’ll still be eligible for those benefits.

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About the Author

Stephanie Faris has written about finance for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2013. She spent nearly a year as a ghostwriter for a credit card processing service and has ghostwritten about finance for numerous marketing firms and entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared on The Motley Fool, MoneyGeek, Ecommerce Insiders, GoBankingRates, and ThriveBy30.

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