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Audit Report - A-05-95-00016

Office of Audit

Payments to Surviving Spouses at Retirement Age - A-05-95-00016 - 3/28/97

This report presents the results of our audit of payments to surviving spouses at retirement age (A-05-95-00016). Our audit focussed on whether surviving spouses were receiving the highest benefit due them at retirement age and whether SSA identified and notified eligible survivors about those higher benefits at age 65.

We estimate there were 539 surviving spouses who attained age 65 in December 1992 and were entitled to, but were not receiving, higher retirement benefits. However, our statistical population was limited to those who became age 65 during 1 month, December 1992. The number of widows entitled to retirement benefits should grow significantly in future years with the increase in women`s participation in the work force.

SSA requires surviving spouses to reapply for retirement benefits when their retirement benefit becomes higher than their survivors benefit. We identified 7,694 surviving spouses who could potentially qualify for retirement benefits and also attained age 65 in December 1992. A sample of 100 cases (all were widows) disclosed that 16 were eligible for higher retirement benefits. However, seven of these widows did not apply for the retirement benefit and, therefore, were not receiving the highest benefit for which they were eligible. The widows were due increased monthly benefits with an average increase of 15.7 percent. The widows were unaware of the higher retirement benefit and, at their retirement age, SSA did not notify them.

SSA`s system of notifying beneficiaries about their eligibility for a higher retirement benefit was not fully effective. We found documentation that SSA prepared diary alerts for only 3 of the 16 survivors which indicated that diaries were made for them to return to SSA and apply for retirement benefits. One of the documents was found in a case folder for a widow who applied and two were found in case folders for widows who did not apply. Additionally, we found that SSA does not have a system capability to monitor potential retirement benefits for widowed beneficiaries.

We are recommending that SSA improve its procedures to assist surviving spouses in receiving the highest benefit for which they are eligible.

SSA agreed that it could improve its process for informing surviving spouses when they are eligible for higher benefits at retirement age. SSA`s complete response to our recommendations is included as Appendix B. SSA expects the new process to be implemented by May 1997.

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Title II of the Social Security Act provides benefits to surviving spouses who are over age 60 based on their deceased spouses earnings. Title II also provides that individuals age 62 or older with sufficient earnings can be eligible for retirement benefits.

Generally, an application for any title II benefit includes all title II benefits for which an applicant may be entitled. However, when a surviving spouse under age 62 applies for title II benefits, the spouse is limited to survivors benefits. The reason for this limitation is that the spouses are not eligible for retirement benefits until they reach the age of 62. If the spouses are age 62 but under age 65, they may be eligible to receive a reduced retirement benefit based on their own earnings. Surviving spouses who elect not to receive reduced retirement benefits must reapply to obtain retirement benefits, normally when they attain full retirement age, currently 65.

When a surviving spouse, 62 years or older, files for survivors benefits and delays filing for retirement benefits, SSA procedures require that the field office setup an alert date on the individual`s record. The alert is used as a reminder for the field office to contact the beneficiary when he or she may be eligible for higher benefits as a retiree.


The audit was conducted in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. The objectives of our audit were to determine if surviving spouses were receiving the highest benefit at retirement age for which they were eligible and whether SSA was effective in identifying and notifying affected individuals.

To achieve our objectives we:

  • Reviewed SSA policies and procedures for processing claimants eligible for both survivors and retirement benefits.
  • Interviewed SSA personnel responsible for processing and accounting for survivors benefits.
  • Reviewed SSA beneficiary records, case folders, and accounting records.
  • Referred eligible widows in our sample who had not reapplied for retirement benefits at age 65 to SSA field staff for personal contacts. The purpose was to determine why these beneficiaries had not applied for retirement benefits that were higher than their survivors benefits.

We identified 7,694 beneficiaries receiving survivors benefits who had sufficient earnings for retirement eligibility and attained age 65 in December 1992. We selected a random sample of 100 of these beneficiaries to determine if they were receiving the highest benefit for which they were eligible.

We conducted our audit at the Harold Washington Social Security Center in Chicago, Illinois, and SSA headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. The audit was conducted between February 1995 and May 1996.

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We determined that 16 of the 100 widows in our sample were receiving survivors benefits, but were eligible for higher retirement benefits. Nine of the widows returned to SSA field offices at or before age 65 and applied for retirement benefits. The remaining seven did not apply for retirement benefits, so we asked SSA field staff to contact them. The staff contacted six of the seven widows and, as a result, all applied for the higher retirement benefit. The other person had died before contact was initiated. The widows were due increased monthly benefits of $5 to $83, with an average benefit increase of $40 or 15.7 percent.

We also asked that the SSA staff contacting the six widows determine why they had not applied for the higher retirement benefit. The widows stated that they either did not remember or did not understand what was said to them regarding potential retirement benefits when they applied for survivors benefits. As examples, one widow replied that she was so upset at the time that she remembered nothing. Another individual said that she thought that once she filed it was forever; she never knew she could switch to retirement benefits. All six widows replied that they were not contacted near their 65th birthday regarding retirement benefits.

We found evidence that SSA had informed three of the six widows about reapplying for retirement benefits, when they applied for survivors benefits. One individual, when questioned, said that if she was informed about retirement when she first applied for benefits, she did not remember and did not understand she needed to reapply. There was evidence in two other case folders that widows were told at the time of application to return to the field office and reapply for retirement benefits at age 65.


SSA has procedures for employees to explain to beneficiaries that survivors benefits do not include retirement benefits. Surviving spouses also sign applications which include a statement that retirement benefits were not included in the survivor`s application. When a surviving spouse applies for survivors benefits after age 62, it is more likely that retirement benefits will be discussed because they are also eligible at that time for reduced retirement benefits. However, if a surviving spouse files an application between age 60 and 62, it is possible that retirement benefits may not be discussed because at the time of the application, he or she may not be eligible for retirement.

In any case, SSA procedures place the responsibility for filing the application for retirement benefits on the surviving spouse. It is apparent from our sample results that a significant portion of these beneficiaries do not apply for retirement long after filing for survivors benefits. The SSA should identify and provide assistance to these individuals.

The SSA has established a system to alert the field offices when beneficiaries need to be contacted in the future. However, our sample indicated that this system was ineffective. We found documentation that diary alerts were made only in 3 of the 16 sampled case folders for widows eligible for higher retirement benefits. One of the documents was in a widows’ folder who had applied for retirement and two from widows who did not.

There are several reasons why this SSA process is not effective. First, the diary must be processed manually and is up to 5 years old when SSA needs to take action. These contribute to errors and delays in the alert process. Second, the diary may not be established for surviving spouses who applied before age 62 and were not eligible for retirement under their own record. However, if the widow is working, they may be eligible for retirement in the future and a new benefit comparison will be necessary at a later time.

Last, SSA does not have the systems capability of monitoring potential retirement benefits for widowed beneficiaries. SSA lacks the ability to calculate the potential retirement benefit, compare the survivors and retirement benefits, and send a notice to those who should apply for higher retirement benefits.

The SSA has the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES) that is used to inform individuals of potential retirement benefits at age 65. The SSA originally intended to send statements to title II beneficiaries who were not receiving benefits on their own earnings. This would have included the widows we identified. However, SSA decided not to issue these statements due to budget and workload considerations. This decision excludes surviving spouses on survivors benefits from receiving a PEBES notifying them of potentially higher retirement benefits.


chart showing women in the work forceThe number of women affected by this potential loss of retirement benefits will increase in future years due to the increase in the number of women working. The last 30 years have seen a significant increase, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1995. In 1960, 21.9 million women worked. By 1990, the number more than doubled to 53 million working women. It is inevitable that the number of women who will be eligible for retirement benefits will continue to increase in the future. Widows may continue to receive lower benefits than they are eligible for unless they are advised of the alternatives. The SSA needs to inform surviving spouses of their potential retirement benefits and the need for a separate retirement application.

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We recommend that SSA inform surviving spouses when they are eligible for retirement benefits which are higher than their survivors benefits. This information could be disseminated through any one of the following mechanisms:

  • Attaching information to a current notice or as a special notice specific to this situation.
  • Sending a PEBES statement to surviving spouses with qualified earnings.
  • Using an automated alert system that would monitor surviving spouses potentially eligible for higher retirement benefits and generate alerts to notify them to apply for those benefits.

SSA Comments: SSA agreed that it could improve its process for informing surviving spouses when they are eligible for higher benefits at retirement age. SSA expects the new process to be implemented by May 1997.

David C. Williams

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Population: 7,694 widows and widowers who may qualify for higher retirement benefits. Our population consisted of those who attained age 65 in December 1992.

Sample Size: 100 (all were widows)

Sample Selection: Random

Characteristics: The number of widows eligible for higher retirement benefits.

Number Identified in Sample: 16 widows identified as having higher retirement benefits.

Sample Results: 9 switched to retirement benefits before or at age 65.

7 remained on survivors benefits at age 65.

Projected Number: 539 individuals projected to be eligible for higher retirement benefit, but still receiving survivors benefits.

90 percent Confidence Mean is Between: Lower limit -- 257 individuals

Upper limit -- 978 individuals

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Office of the Inspector General

Roger J. Normand, Director, Program Audits (North)
Ross Anderson, Team Leader
Sheri Fulcher, Senior Auditor
Richard Dubin, Auditor
Robert Lenz, Auditor

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