Survivor’s Pension: Benefits for Spouses and Setting Up Your Plan

Tylene Welch  | 

The survivor’s pension benefit is the tax-free benefit to the surviving spouse (or children) of a deceased pension holder or Veteran. It can be difficult to discuss what would happen in the event of death, but it is important to ensure that benefits are passed down to your loved ones.

In this article, we’ll address what happens to pension benefits when the primary beneficiary dies. We’ll explain how you or your spouse could choose pension benefits that ensure the other partner would still receive benefits in the unfortunate event of a passing. We’ll also cover the specifics of military benefits.

Can Spouses Receive Pension Benefits?

Yes, sometimes a spouse can receive pension benefits after the primary account holder has passed away. But this depends on the elections made by the pension holder at the time they retired and started receiving pension payouts. Next, we’ll cover the benefit options for a defined-benefit pension plan.

Single Life Benefit Plans

A single life benefit plan, also called a “life-only annuity payout,” is probably the option you’ll choose if you are not married. You might also choose this option if your spouse has their own pension plan. The single life benefit plan will stop making payments when the pension holder passes, so your spouse will not receive any benefits from your pension with this option.

Some pension benefit plans have unique rules that should be carefully considered before making your payout choice. Be sure to consult a trusted financial advisor if you have questions.

Joint and Survivor Benefit Plans

If you choose a joint and survivor benefit plan, monthly payments will continue if you are widowed or a widower. With a pension plan, your monthly check amount is based on how much you have in the account, and how early you retire (or how long you expect to collect these payments). So if you choose a survivor benefit plan, your monthly check will be lower than it would with a single life benefit plan. That is to ensure that there is enough money in the account to last both your life in retirement and your spouse’s.

Survivor Benefits: What You Need to Know

This is what you need to know if you’re considering the joint and survivor benefit plan option for your pension payout.

Spousal Consent and Benefit Distributions

If you are married and you do not choose the joint and survivor benefit plan option, you and your spouse are required by law to sign a spousal consent form. This confirms that you both agree with this decision and you are both aware that this means your spouse would not receive any benefit from your pension plan if they are widowed.

How Does Choosing a Survivor’s Benefit Plan Affect My Benefits?

As mentioned above, choosing a survivor’s benefit plan will affect your monthly benefits throughout retirement. The options and numbers in the following example will vary depending on your pension plan’s rules. Be sure to speak to your employer, fund manager, or financial advisor before making any permanent decisions.

For example, if you choose a single life benefit plan for your pension, you might receive $1,500 per month for the rest of your life, but those payments would stop in the event of death. If you are married and you choose the survivor’s benefit plan for your pension, the monthly payment amount you receive might be a few hundred dollars less than the single life plan check, but it will ensure your spouse receives the benefit for the rest of their life too.

When making your selections, you might have the option to select a percentage of your monthly pension benefit for your spouse to receive, like 50 or 75 percent. In that case, your pension payouts will reflect the difference. The more you wish for your spouse to receive, the more that will be taken out of your original pension checks. However, you can think of this “fee” as purchasing life insurance to guarantee your spouse is financially stable in the event of your passing. We’ll cover this in the next section.

Joint Life Pension Plans vs Life Insurance

Essentially, choosing the survivor’s benefit plan is like purchasing life insurance for your spouse. With the survivor’s benefit plan, your monthly pension payout will be significantly lower than it would if you chose the single life benefit option, but the amount you’re losing every month will ensure your spouse keeps receiving income if widowed.

The amount you lose could be considered equal to purchasing life insurance. It just depends on your plan, how much you’re losing a month, and how much life insurance would cost you if you went that route instead. It’s important to get specific numbers and research your options before choosing the survivor’s benefit.

VA Survivors Pension: Benefits for Military Spouses

The VA survivors pension benefit is a guaranteed tax-free monthly benefit for spouses or children of a deceased Veteran. There are some rules for eligibility with this benefit which can vary depending on when you or your spouse served in the military. We’ll outline what you need to know about military benefits in retirement here:

  • If the Vet served on or before September 7, 1980, they must have served at least 90 days in active military service and at least one day during a war time period.
  • If military time was served after the above date, the Vet must have either served a minimum 24 months or the full period they were called for active duty (with at least one day during a war time period.
  • If a Vet was discharged for dishonorable conditions, they will not be eligible for the VA survivors pension.
  • Benefits for military spouses are calculated on multiple factors including the family’s annual income.
  • Unmarried spouses of deceased veterans are eligible for the survivors pension at any age.
  • Children of the deceased veteran must be under the age of 18, under 23 if attending a VA-approved school, or permanently incapable of supporting themselves due to a disability.

If you have a pension plan for retirement, you have some great options for ensuring your surviving family members are taken care of in the event of your death. At least knowing this can hopefully give you some comfort. Just be sure to know your options and make the best decision possible for your family.


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Tylene is a freelancer in Boise, Idaho. She's a self-taught personal finance hacker with zero debt. She eats avocado toast for breakfast.

This post was updated May 3, 2018. It was originally published May 6, 2018.