Ask The Seniors Center: what happens to your Social Security if no one files for it?

What happens to [Social Security] money paid in if a person dies before retirement age, if no children or spouse?

Marie W.

Happy Wednesday, Marie, and thanks for your question!

It’s a sad thing, but it isn’t unusual for someone to pass prior to filing for and collecting even a single month of their Social Security benefits.

If the deceased had a spouse or a child under 18 years of age, these family members might be eligible to collect survivors benefits.  In some cases, parents, grandchildren, stepchildren, stepgrandchildren, adopted children, and ex-spouses are also eligible to collect this benefit.

But if a person passes and leaves behind no immediate family–or at least none listed by the Social Security Administration as being eligible for a survivors benefit–what happens to their Social Security money?

Social Security is one of a handful of federal programs referred to as social insurance. There are glaring differences between social insurance and private insurance, but in a loose sense, they operate on the same principle.

You put money in little by little in order to receive a large payment when you need it. That might be if your home floods, if you have a car accident, or when you pass away so you can leave your beneficiary with money to pay for your final expenses.

In this case, we put money into Social Security all of our working lives so that when we age out of the workforce, we’ll have income during retirement.

So what happens to your payments with other types of insurance if you pass away before you’ve ever had to make a claim?  Excluding life insurance, of course.

Nothing.  The insurer just absorbs all of those premiums.

If you have a car for 10 years without a single accident while paying for collision insurance, that’s a wonderful thing, but you don’t get those 10 years of premiums back when you trade the car in or sell it.

Social Security contributions work sort of the same way.  If there are no eligible survivors to file a claim on your benefits, your earned benefit doesn’t go anywhere.

And if you remember how the Trust Fund is actually structured, this makes total sense.

Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system–there is no actual trust account filled with all of our payroll tax contributions.  As payroll taxes roll in, they’re immediately used to pay the benefits of current retirees.  The Trust Fund we talk about is strictly a ledger filled with deposits and payments.

That being true, our unused contributions aren’t left sitting in an account if our survivors or we don’t claim them should we pass.  Our actual contributions are long gone well before we file for retirement.  They helped to pay the benefits of those who retired long before us.

If you never file a claim for your Social Security benefits, it just means no claim has been filed and no benefit will be paid.

Thank you so much for your question, Marie!  We hope that helps!


Do you have a question about your Social Security benefits or Social Security policy?  Please give us a shout over at our contact page.  We’d love to hear what you have to say and feature your question on our weekly “Ask The Seniors Center” blog post!