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Main | Op-Ed School Safety Should Not Be A Partisan Issue »

Op-Ed We Must Re Examine Social Security Death Benefits

By Veronica Colwin

Most people under the age of 60 years old, do not really plan on becoming widows or widowers. It is not something we necessarily expect, but sadly it is the reality for many. I mean clearly death does not discriminate based on income or age, so why does the government, regarding Social Security Death Benefits. 

Here is the scoop in case you are unfamiliar with how Social Security Death Benefits work for the surviving spouse and children. Every child dependent of the deceased is qualified until either the age of 18, or upon their high school graduation. Yes, you read that right! Not through college, but on their very last day of high school. The widow/widower is eligible for benefits only if they have a child under the age of 16, AND are only allowed to make under $15,000 annually. Yes, you read that right as well! 

Here lies the struggle, if you seek to supplement the loss of benefits from a child who just graduated high school to help with college expenses, you must do so while earning the kind of wages you would if you were an employed teenager. Why? Because you risk losing the benefits you continue to receive for having any other children, under the age of 16 years old. 

I am working with a client, we’ll call her Sue, who is widowed and raising five children on her own since the death of her husband eight years ago. Sue’s two older children are in college, she has a senior in high school, a daughter in 11th grade and a 10-year-old son. Sue has been a stay at home since becoming a widow, to be there for her children. Her 11th grader and 10-year-old are both categorized as “children with special needs.” 

Sue has much on her plate without adding the financial struggles she is about to face. Come June 2019, her senior in high school will lose his Social Security Death Benefits, while preparing for college. Sue will then have three children in college, and two at home with special needs. She must find a way to either continue to support the six of them on monies allotted for three people, or go back to work, being mindful of that $15,000 cap. There is another option, to gain full-time employment and give up her benefits. Let’s play out that scenario for Sue. After being a stay at home mom for over eight years, she tries returning to the workforce and earning an income that was more than the income she just lost. Hm…sounds easy enough right? Wrong! She’s been out of work for eight years, some would call her unemployable, and if she did gain full time employment, how is she going to cover child care expenses for her two “special needs” children?

The point here is that although many like Sue are grateful for the benefits, the guidelines make it impossible for widows/widowers to supplement their income when they so clearly need to. Any parent knows, regardless of the circumstances, there continues to be a financial responsibility to children attending college. So, why do benefits that are supposed to replace the income of a deceased parent end at high school graduation? 


Veronica Colwin is a graduate student working on her MSW at SUNY Stony Brook. As part of the social work curriculum she has spent the last two years receiving field and classroom instruction on how to provide care to clients in integrated health settings. Ms. Colwin is a single parent of a child with special needs, she has also spent time volunteering in a domestic violence shelter. Veronica Colwin will be graduating in 2019.



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