Types of union benefits available for survivors

  • If the union member was retired, joint-life or survivor pensions pay out to a beneficiary at a reduced amount.

  • If they were still working, their pension may pay out in a lump sum to a surviving spouse.

  • Funeral and burial benefits are also common, as are 401(k)s.

  • Reach out to your loved one's union chapter to find out more, and to be comforted by the well-wishes of their fellow union members.

At this difficult moment, you may be struggling with your loss both emotionally and financially. But if your loved one who passed away was ever a member of a trade or labor union, chances are you are entitled to survivor benefits through that organization. While benefits vary by union, this can be a source of meaningful short-term or long-term financial support. 

Many unions provide death benefits (a lump-sum payment) and/or survivor benefits (ongoing monthly payments) as part of the pension or annuity plan your loved one subscribed to. In addition to spouses, some domestic partners or children may qualify as beneficiaries. Sometimes union members can also receive death benefits for a spouse or dependent child who has died. The union chapter can help you understand what benefits they provide.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 79 percent of union workers participate in guaranteed retirement benefits through a defined benefit retirement plan (also called a pension). Pensions are funded entirely by the employer, and the pool of funds is invested on the employee's behalf. The earnings on the investments generate income to the worker upon retirement.

When a union member who had already retired and was receiving their pension passes away, the pension payments either end (if the member was enrolled in a single-life pension) or they continue, paid to the beneficiary at a reduced amount (if they had a joint-life or survivor pension). Some unions offer some other hybrid options, though this is far less common. 

If the member had not retired prior to their passing or was receiving disability, the plan may pay out a lump sum to the designated beneficiary. This is typically worth a certain multiple of the member's salary, because defined-benefit plans were designed to be linked to length of employment and salary history. They may need to have been vested, meaning they were a union member long enough to be entitled to full pension benefits. 

Typically, pension plans allow for only the member or their surviving spouse to receive benefit payments. However, in limited instances, some may allow for a non-spouse beneficiary such as a dependent child. Some lump-sum or monthly pension payments may be taxable, depending on your circumstances.

If you’re not sure what union to contact, or the organization or plan no longer exists, you can check for possible benefits on the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation website. 


In addition to pensions, many unions offer the option of participating in a supplemental defined-contribution savings plan (also known as a 401(k)). Employees contribute a fixed amount or a percentage of their paychecks to an account that is intended to fund their retirements. 

The beneficiary can access remaining funds in the retirement account through a gradual drawdown or lump-sum payment, or through the purchase of an annuity. Some organizations may match a portion of employee contributions as an added benefit, but if the person had not been a union member long enough to be vested, that amount may be subtracted from the account and returned to the organization. 

Some unions have partnerships with participating funeral homes that provide special pricing and services for union members.

If you’re not sure if your loved one had a 401(k), you can check with the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. You will need the person’s Social Security number to search the online database.  

Funeral and burial benefits 

Union pension plans often include lump-sum funeral and burial benefits. If someone is retired and receiving their pension, this amount is typically $1,000, or one month’s pension payment, whichever is greater. If the union member died in a work-related accident, some unions cover burial expenses from an emergency fund. 

In addition, some unions have partnerships with participating funeral homes that provide special pricing and services for union members. The extra care from a provider who understands your needs can help reduce some of the stress of making final arrangements. 

Credit unions

Credit unions are financial cooperatives originally dedicated to supporting workers. If your loved one participated in a credit union as part of labor union membership, you are likely still entitled to continue banking with them. Some credit unions offer death benefit insurance, either through direct premiums or paid by the labor union. This policy pays a lump sum in the event of death and sometimes double for accidental death.  

When a beneficiary dies

Some unions pay a death benefit upon the death of a union member’s spouse or eligible unmarried child/stepchild, including a lump-sum payment and coverage of some burial expenses.

Union benefits can be a great source of financial relief, so it’s definitely a good idea to look into them. If your loved one enjoyed the fellowship of the other members of their union, consider reaching out to them as well. Their solidarity can be a comforting source of emotional support in this difficult time.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.