A young mother died in a car accident. Can her widower get survivor benefits?
Dear Liz: My grandson’s wife, 22, was killed in a motor vehicle accident just after her birthday. My grandson, 26, was left with a 2-year-old and 9-month-old. Due to COVID-19, he was staying home with the children, and she was working at a fast-food restaurant. We thought there would be Social Security survivor benefits, but he has been denied because she did not have 10 quarters of payroll. Is there an appeal for this denial? She was too young to have the required quarters.
Answer: Given her age, the family could be out of luck if she only recently started working. But there is a special rule that applies if she was working at jobs that paid into Social Security for at least a year and a half before her death.
With survivor benefits, the length of time someone needs to work typically varies according to age. To generate survivor benefits, the number of years you need to work at a job that pays into Social Security is — at most — 10 years. Each quarter of work typically generates one credit, and no more than 40 credits are needed. The younger someone is when they die, the fewer credits are needed. People, however, generally need at least six credits, and only credits earned after someone turns 22 count toward the total.
But there’s an exception. Survivor benefits can be paid if the worker earned at least six credits in the three years before death. So if your grandson’s wife worked at least 18 months before her terribly premature death, survivor benefits could be paid to her minor children and to the surviving spouse who is caring for them, said William Meyer, chief executive of Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategy site.
The benefits would be based on her earnings history, so the amounts are unlikely to be substantial, Meyer noted. Still, something would be better than nothing.
All Social Security decisions can be appealed. If your grandson already filed an application and was denied, the denial letter would explain his appeal rights, Meyer said. If he just received a verbal denial, he should go ahead and file a formal application to start the process. If his wife had earnings that might not yet have been reported, he can provide her last pay stubs or W-2 forms when filing the application.
“With there being a concern about her having enough qualifying quarters, as well as low earnings, that could be pretty important,” Meyer said.
Did you collect unemployment benefits, create a home office, pick up gig work or pay big medical bills in 2020? Those kinds of changes can have tax implications.
Emergency fund: How big?
Dear Liz: You recently advised a teacher who was inquiring about paying down student debt. You suggested among other things to “have a substantial emergency fund before you make extra payments on education debt (or a mortgage, for that matter). ‘Substantial’ means having three to six months’ worth of expenses saved. If your job is anything less than rock solid, you may want to set aside even more.” Granted, this is in the context of the student debt question, but is that emergency fund advice still valid in light of studies showing the liquidity needs of lower-income households to be much lower?
Answer: The usual advice about emergency funds is often unrealistic and sometimes absurd for most low- or even moderate-income households.
The advice is usually given by financial planners who typically work with higher-income clients. The higher your income, the more likely it is that you have the free cash flow to quickly build a large emergency fund.
An analysis in the New York Times found that a household with income over $200,000 would need about two months to save one month’s worth of expenses. A household with income of $70,000 to $99,999 would need seven to eight months to save one month’s worth. A typical household with two or more people and income of $50,000 to $69,999 would need more than two years to save a single month’s worth of expenses.
As you’ve noted, though, various studies have found that much smaller emergency funds can help households avoid catastrophe.
A 2015 study by Pew Charitable Trusts found the most expensive financial shock suffered by the typical household amounted to $2,000. But as little as $250 can reduce the odds that a low-income household will suffer serious financial setbacks such as eviction, according to a 2016 Urban Institute study.
A three-month emergency fund could be a long-term goal, but it’s not something that should be prioritized over more important tasks such as saving for retirement or paying off high-rate debt.
Such a fund should be a priority, however, over paying off lower-rate, potentially tax-deductible debt. That’s especially true when you’d be making extra payments on student loans. Paying down credit cards can free up additional credit to be used in an emergency, but payments sent to student loan lenders are gone for good.
Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at AskLizWeston.com.
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