Navigating benefits amidst your grief | Empathy | Empathy
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Navigating benefits amidst your grief

Dealing with difficult feelings around benefits


  • Some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of death benefits, or even find it painful to explore them.

  • These are natural feelings, but there is no reason to dwell on them.

  • Death can cause financial hardship, and benefits are an important source of support.

  • Your loved one wanted you to have these, and using them now is a way of honoring them.


When someone you love dies, it’s often all you can do to cope with your feelings of grief and loss. At the same time, you may also need to make a number of significant financial decisions about funeral expenses, medical bills, and the resources you need to pay your own debts. Benefits are one important source of funding that many families rely on during this difficult time.

Sometimes you are entitled to benefits from certain organizations once your loved one passes away, but the will or other documents may not have listed them in detail. Even if you’re aware of the benefits, you may not be sure how to access them, or you might find that you are uncomfortable with the idea that you might be profiting from a loved one’s death. When we access benefits and use them wisely, however, we are fulfilling one of our loved ones’ most fervent last wishes: to continue caring for us even after they die. 

Accessing financial support

Often when someone dies, they do not leave behind enough information about their financial affairs. If this happens and you’re not sure which survivor benefits you might be entitled to, your loved one’s history can yield important clues. If you have access to your loved one’s documents, you may also be able to get useful information by looking for bank statements, canceled checks, premiums notices, and benefit statements.

If you suspect that there are benefits out there that you do not know about, there are several ways to search for them. Contacting the office of the comptroller for the state your loved one lived in is one good place to start. An accountant or lawyer may also be of assistance in thinking of places to look. And there are also private investigators who specialize in finding unclaimed benefits. 

Here are some of the most common benefits you and your family may be entitled to.

Social Security

The surviving spouse or child of a Social Security beneficiary can collect a $255 lump sum death benefit, and some spouses, ex-spouses in marriages of over ten years, children under 18, and disabled children are also eligible for continued monthly benefits under the person’s record. You generally do not need to file an application for survivor benefits unless you are already receiving Social Security under your own record. 

When we access benefits and use them wisely, we are fulfilling one of our loved ones’ most fervent last wishes.

Usually the funeral home will report the person’s death to the Social Security Administration (SSA), and the agency automatically updates any monthly benefits you receive. Make sure to follow up with the SSA, however. The agency may also be able to pay the lump-sum benefit automatically. 

You cannot report a death or apply for benefits online, so you may need to call the agency and mail in some documents to confirm your benefits claim, most often when you are already receiving your own benefits. The agency also has access to some other government agencies’ records and may be able to give you information about other benefits.  

Life insurance

In exchange for a monthly premium, life insurance companies pay out a sum of money upon the policyholder's death, either as a lump sum or over time. There are two primary types of life insurance: permanent and term. Permanent life insurance provides lifetime coverage, while term life insurance provides coverage for a specified period, usually based on age. Many people are covered by a term-life policy through their employer, or they take out a policy when they are in their prime earning years and want to guarantee income to their spouse and/or dependents.

Final expense insurance is a small term-life insurance policy that someone may take out if they do not already have life insurance or cannot afford premiums on a larger policy. It’s generally available to people aged 50 to 85.

If you don’t find any policies in your loved one’s documents, you can check with past and present employers and contact the insurance commission office in your state so they can do a records search.  

Pensions

Most private employers no longer provide pension plans, but if your loved one was enrolled in a program prior to 1982, you may still be entitled to survivor benefits, even if they had other employment after that. Public sector/civil service and union jobs still provide pensions, though the benefits are much more robust if enrollment began prior to 1982. To check for possible benefits, including from plans that no longer exist, contact the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

Veterans

Although military retired pay stops upon death of the retiree, you may be eligible for a survivors pension that provides a continuous lifetime annuity of up to 55% of retired pay for a veteran’s dependents. Active-duty soldiers are automatically enrolled at no charge, and retired personnel can pay premiums. 

Veterans Affairs also pays up to $796 toward burial/funeral expenses for veterans hospitalized by VA at time of death, or $300 toward burial/funeral expenses for those who were not, as well as a $796 plot-interment allowance for those not buried in a national cemetery. When a veteran, servicemember, or family member qualifies for burial in a national cemetery, they receive certain burial benefits at no cost to the family, including burial plot, headstone, and ongoing care of the grave. 

In addition, survivors may qualify for health care, education, employment, financial services, and life insurance benefits. The Veterans Benefits Administration can help you find out what you are entitled to.

The Department of Defense provides a one-time lump sum Death Gratuity of $100,000 to the primary next of kin of a service member who dies while on active duty. You may be eligible for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) as well, if your loved one’s death resulted from a disease or injury incurred or aggravated while they were on active duty or training.

Public assistance

If a person dies while on welfare and has no assets, many municipalities offer death benefits to assist the family. You may be eligible for funds to cover a funeral service, casket or other container, cemetery space, and headstone. The county in which your loved one received assistance has a unit that coordinates these benefits.

After a loved one dies, your grief can be compounded by daunting expenses, and benefits such as these can help mitigate financial pressure on you and your family. All the same, you may still feel uncomfortable or feel the money is too much of a reminder of your loss. 

Remind yourself that you haven’t done anything wrong by surviving your loved one. Feeling grief is an important part of recovering from a loss, and focusing on your guilt is not going to help you work through it. Remember that your loved one wanted you to have these benefits, and that addressing your financial needs in a difficult time can be just as important a part of self-care as taking care of your emotional needs.  

Sometimes impactful help to others in a similar situation may help you manage your feelings. If you really can’t bear to use the money yourself, you can always collect any cash benefits and donate them. You may not be able to spend any more time with your loved one, you can still pay forward the love and support they gave you ●

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Applying for Benefits

Applying for Benefits

There may be several different kinds of benefits you are eligible for that can help you during this difficult time. Your loved one purchased or earned these as a way to continue to support and show their love for you even after they were gone, and making use of them honors their memory and their life.

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