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Some Retirees Are Missing Out on Millions of Dollars in Social Security Benefits. Here's Why -- and What to Do About It

By Christy Bieber – Jul 22, 2020 at 6:02AM

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Are you one of them?

With most seniors on a fixed income, getting every dollar of benefits available is essential. Unfortunately, many seniors are missing out on money they should be receiving. In fact, according to a recent report from the Office of the Inspector General, some retirees could be losing millions of dollars in benefits over the course of their lifetimes.

Fortunately, the problem is an easy one to correct -- but only if you know you're missing out and you take action. 

Sad older man sitting at table.

Image source: Getty Images.

Retirees aren't getting the Social Security benefits that belong to them

The Inspector General identified 30,768 individuals who were receiving retirement benefits who might be eligible for additional widows or widowers benefits and conducted a random review of 100 beneficiaries.

Based on this review, the IG estimates that as many as 15,076 retirees should've received survivor benefits but didn't get the money they were due. 

These retirees had already missed out on an estimated $193.8 million in Social Security benefits as of September 2019. And the Inspector General expected that around 12,615 of them could miss out on an additional $530.9 million in income over their lifetimes because they hadn't claimed their widows or widowers benefits. 

As troubling as those numbers are, the problem preventing those seniors from getting their money could also apply to many more Americans claiming retirement benefits in the future. 

Why are retirees missing out on so much money? 

When you apply for Social Security, staff members are supposed to explore all the benefits you might be entitled to receive, including those based on a current or former spouse's work history. 

Unfortunately, the system doesn't always work perfectly. In fact, the Inspector General indicated that none of the retirees who were eligible for widows or widowers benefits in their review were notified by the Social Security Administration that they should be getting this money -- even though the SSA knew they were married to someone who was deceased. 

One big problem is that if retirees claim their own benefits before their spouses die and they aren't entitled to spousal benefits, the SSA doesn't generally have a way to identify their eligibility for widows or widowers benefits. As a result, they often aren't notified that they'd be entitled to start receiving survivor benefits when their spouse passes.

Sadly, many retirees who are affected by this issue don't realize they'd have to file a separate application for benefits after their spouse passes on. And still others aren't even aware they could be entitled to survivor benefits at all. In fact, as many as two-thirds of people don't realize they could receive survivor benefits if they divorced after a marriage of at least 10 years and their ex-spouse has passed. 

What can you do about it?

If you have a deceased spouse, contact the Social Security Administration to find out how much your survivor benefits would be worth and to determine if you should apply for them. Remember, you cannot apply online for survivor benefits and must be able to provide a copy of the death certificate.

You should also let your friends know to contact the SSA if they are widows or widowers and may be entitled to survivor benefits they aren't currently receiving. Since so many people don't realize they're missing out, spreading this information far and wide could help the people in your life to get the Social Security benefits they've earned and that they may need to make retirement as comfortable as possible. 

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