Widows – and widowers – can find themselves grappling with grief at the same time they must deal with the sudden loss of their spouses' incomes. The federal government recognizes this and requires private pension plans to provide benefits to survivors under the terms of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Other types of pensions and benefits offer some survivor benefits as well.
The rules for private pensions can depend on the type of plan, but some general rules apply. You and your spouse either elected to receive pension payments with survivor benefits, or you waived this right. Pension payments would have been less during his lifetime if you chose the option of survivor benefits, but you will continue to receive those payments after his death for the rest of your life if that's the option you chose. They won't be as much as they were during his lifetime, however -- you may receive as little as half. With most plans, you must have been married for at least a year in order to collect, but you won't lose benefits if you remarry.
U.S. Civil Service Retirement
U.S. Civil Service Retirement survivor benefits have rules similar to those of private pensions if your spouse dies after he begins collecting benefits. You also can receive benefits if your spouse was still working for the government at the time of his death, but you must have been married for at least one year or be the parent of his child. He must have worked for the government for a minimum of 18 months. Unfortunately, you won't receive ongoing benefits if he's not working at the time of his death but hasn't yet begun to collect his retirement benefits. You may receive a lump sum, however, equal to the contributions he made while working. If you find yourself in this situation, speak with a financial planner so you're sure of your rights.
Military and Veterans Benefits
If your spouse served in the military, you may be able to collect survivors benefits. The VA's Survivors Pension benefit pays you tax-free income if you haven't remarried. Your spouse must have served at least 24 months active duty with at least one day occurring during wartime, or the full term of his call to active duty with one day during wartime, if he served after September 7, 1980. If he served before this date, he must have had at least 90 days active duty with at least one day during wartime. These benefits are provided only to low-income survivors, however, and they're only available if your spouse was discharged honorably.
You can find out if you qualify for military benefits by visiting your nearest regional benefit office. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers a list of locations on its website. You also can ask about Dependency and Indemnity Compensation if your spouse died from a service-related disability or while he was actively serving in the military.
Social Security Benefits
Although Social Security retirement benefits aren't actually a pension, they can help you make ends meet. If your spouse retired at or after age 65 and you're at least 65, you can collect either 100 percent of your spouse's benefits or your own, whichever is greater. If you're at least 60 years old, you can receive 71.5 percent of his benefits. You must have been married for a minimum of nine months before his death unless you have a child together – either biological or adopted – or he died as the result of a job-related incident. Visit your local Social Security office to apply – you can't do it online.