Prepared by Public Affairs 312-751-4777
Monthly benefits may be payable under the
Act to the surviving widow(er), children, and certain other dependents of a
railroad employee if the employee was "insured" under that Act at the time of
death. Lump-sum death benefits may also be payable to qualified survivors in
The following questions and answers describe the survivor benefits payable by
the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) and the eligibility requirements for these
1. What are the general service requirements for railroad retirement
With the exception of one type of lump-sum death benefit, eligibility for
survivor benefits depends on whether or not a deceased employee was "insured"
under the Railroad Retirement Act. An employee is insured if he or she has at
least 120 months (10 years) of railroad service, or 60 months (5 years)
performed after 1995, and a "current connection" with the railroad industry as
of the month the annuity begins or the month of death, whichever occurs first.
Generally, an employee who worked for a railroad in at least 12 months in the 30
months immediately preceding the month his or her railroad retirement annuity
begins will meet the current connection requirement. If an employee dies before
retirement, railroad service in at least 12 months in the 30 months before the
month of death will meet the current connection requirement for the purpose of
paying survivor benefits.
If an employee does not qualify on this
basis, but has 12 months of service in an earlier 30-month period, he or she may
still meet the current connection requirement. This alternative generally
applies if the employee did not have any regular employment outside the railroad
industry after the end of the last 30-month period which included 12 months of
railroad service and before the month the annuity begins or the date of death.
Full or part-time work for a nonrailroad employer in the interval between the
end of the last 30-month period including 12 months of railroad service and the
beginning date of an employee's annuity, or the month of death if earlier, can
break a current connection.
Self-employment in an unincorporated
business will not break a current connection; however,
self-employment can break a current connection if the business is incorporated.
Working for certain U.S. Government agencies -- Department of Transportation,
National Transportation Safety Board, Surface Transportation Board,
Transportation Security Administration, National Mediation Board, Railroad
Retirement Board -- will not break a current connection. State employment with
the Alaska Railroad, so long as that railroad remains an entity of the State of
Alaska, will not break a current connection. Also, railroad service in Canada
for a Canadian railroad will neither break nor preserve a current connection.
A current connection can also be maintained, for purposes of supplemental and
survivor annuities, if the employee completed 25 years of railroad service, was
involuntarily terminated without fault from his or her last job in the rail
industry on or after October 1, 1975, and did not thereafter decline an offer of
employment in the same class or craft in the rail industry, regardless of the
distance to the new position.
Once a current connection is
established at the time the railroad retirement annuity begins, an employee
never loses it no matter what kind of work is performed thereafter.
2. What if these service requirements are not met?
If a deceased employee did not have an insured status, jurisdiction of any
survivor benefits payable is transferred to the Social Security Administration
and survivor benefits are paid by that agency instead of the RRB. Regardless of
which agency has jurisdiction, the deceased employee's railroad retirement and
social security credits will be combined for benefit computation purposes.
3. What are the age and other eligibility requirements for widow(er)s?
Widow(er)s' benefits are payable at age 60 or over. They are payable at any age
if the widow(er) is caring for an unmarried child of the deceased employee under
age 18 or a disabled child of any age who became permanently disabled before age
22. Widow(er)s' benefits are also payable at ages 50-59 if the widow(er) is
totally and permanently disabled and unable to work in any regular employment.
The disability must have begun within 7 years after the employee's death or
within 7 years after the termination of an annuity based on caring for a child
of the deceased employee. In most cases, a 5-month waiting period is required
after the onset of disability before disability payments can begin.
Generally, the widow(er) must have been married to the employee for at least 9
months prior to death, unless she or he was the natural parent of their child,
the employee's death was accidental or while on active duty in the U.S. Armed
Forces, the widow(er) was potentially entitled to certain railroad retirement or
social security benefits in the month before the month of death, or the marriage
was postponed due to State restrictions on divorce due to mental incompetence or
4. Can surviving divorced spouses and remarried widow(er)s also qualify for
Survivor benefits may also be payable to a surviving divorced spouse or
remarried widow(er). Benefits are limited to the amount social security would
pay and therefore are less than the amount of the survivor annuity otherwise
payable by the RRB. However, a former spouse may be paid a court-ordered
A surviving divorced spouse may qualify if she or he was married to the employee
for at least 10 years, and is age 60 or older (age 50 if disabled). A surviving
divorced spouse who is unmarried can qualify at any age if caring for the
employee's child and the child is under age 16 or disabled, in which case the
10-year marriage requirement does not apply. A widow(er) or surviving divorced
spouse who remarries after age 60, or a disabled widow(er) or disabled surviving
divorced spouse who remarries after age 50 may also receive the portion of a
survivor annuity equivalent to a social security benefit (tier I); however,
remarriage prior to age 60 (or age 50 if disabled) would not prevent eligibility
if that remarriage ended. Such social security level benefits may also be paid
to a younger widow(er) or surviving divorced spouse caring for the employee's
child who is under age 16 or disabled, if the remarriage is to a person
receiving railroad retirement or social security benefits or the remarriage
5. When are survivor benefits payable to children and other dependents?
Monthly survivor benefits are payable to an unmarried child under age 18, and to
an unmarried child age 18 in full-time attendance at an elementary or secondary
school, or in approved homeschooling, until the student attains age 19 or the
end of the school term in progress when the student attains age 19. In most
cases where a student attains age 19 during the school term, benefits are
limited to the two months following the month age 19 is attained. These benefits
will be terminated earlier if the student marries, graduates or ceases full-time
attendance. An unmarried disabled child over age 18 may qualify if the child
became totally and permanently disabled before age 22. An unmarried dependent
grandchild meeting any of the requirements described above for a child may also
qualify if both the grandchild's parents are deceased or disabled.
Monthly survivor benefits are also payable to a surviving parent at age 60 who
was dependent on the employee for at least half of the parent's support. If the
employee was also survived by a widow(er), surviving divorced spouse or child
who could ever qualify for an annuity, the parent's annuity is limited to the
amount that social security would pay (tier I).
6. How are railroad retirement widow(er)s' benefits computed?
The tier I amount of a two-tier survivor benefit is based on the deceased
employee's combined railroad retirement and social security earnings credits,
and is computed using social security formulas. In general, the survivor tier I
amount is equal to the amount of survivor benefits that would have been payable
under social security.
December 2001 legislation established an "initial minimum amount" which yields,
in effect, a widow(er)'s tier II benefit equal to the tier II benefit the
employee would have received at the time of the award of the widow(er)'s
annuity, minus any applicable age reduction.
However, such a tier II benefit will not receive annual cost-of-living increases
until such time as the widow(er)'s annuity, as computed under prior law with all
interim cost-of-living increases otherwise payable, exceeds the widow(er)'s
annuity as computed under the initial minimum amount formula.
The average annuity awarded to widow(er)s in fiscal year 2012, excluding
remarried widow(er)s and surviving divorced spouses, was $1,848 a month.
Children received $1,220 a month, on the average. Total family benefits for
widow(er)s with children averaged $3,455 a month. The average annuity awarded to
remarried widow(er)s or surviving divorced spouses in fiscal year 2012 was
$1,064 a month.
A widow(er) who received a spouse annuity from the RRB is guaranteed that the
amount of any widow(er)'s benefit payable will never be less than the annuity
she or he was receiving as a spouse in the month before the employee died.
7. Are survivor benefits subject to any reduction for early retirement or
A widow(er), surviving divorced spouse or remarried widow(er) whose annuity
begins at full retirement age or later receives the full tier I amount unless
the deceased employee received an annuity that was reduced for early retirement.
The eligibility age for a full widow(er)'s annuity is gradually rising from age
65 to age 67. The maximum age reductions will range from 17.1 percent to 20.36
percent, depending on the widow(er)'s date of birth. For a surviving divorced
spouse or remarried widow(er), the maximum age reduction is 28.5 percent. For a
disabled widow(er), disabled surviving divorced spouse or disabled remarried
widow(er), the maximum reduction is 28.5 percent, even if the annuity begins at
8. Are these benefits subject to offset for the receipt of other benefits?
Under the Railroad Retirement Act, the tier I portion of a survivor annuity is
subject to reduction if any social security benefits are also payable, even if
the social security benefit is based on the survivor's own earnings. This
reduction follows the principles of social security law which, in effect, limit
payment to the highest of any two or more benefits payable to an individual at
The tier I portion of a widow(er)'s annuity may also be reduced for the receipt
of any Federal, State or local government pension based on the widow(er)'s own
earnings. The reduction generally does not apply if the employment on which the
public pension is based was covered under the Social Security Act throughout the
last 60 months of public employment. However, most military service pensions and
payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs will not cause a reduction. For
those subject to the public pension reduction, the tier I reduction is equal to
2/3 of the amount of the public pension.
A survivor annuitant should notify the RRB promptly if she or he becomes
entitled to any such benefits.
9. What if a widow(er) was also a railroad employee and is eligible for a
railroad retirement employee annuity as well as monthly survivor benefits?
If both the widow(er) and the deceased employee started railroad employment
after 1974, the survivor annuity payable to the widow(er) is reduced by the
amount of the employee annuity.
If either the deceased employee or the survivor annuitant had some service
before 1975 but had not completed 120 months of railroad service before 1975,
the employee annuity and the tier II portion of the survivor annuity would be
payable to the widow(er). The tier I portion of the survivor annuity would be
payable only to the extent that it exceeds the tier I portion of the employee
A special guaranty applies if either the deceased employee or the survivor
annuitant completed 120 months of railroad service before 1975. In effect, the
widow, or dependent widower, would receive both an employee annuity and a
survivor benefit, without a full dual benefit reduction.
10. What types of lump-sum death benefits are payable under the Railroad
A lump-sum death benefit is payable to certain survivors of an employee with 10
or more years of railroad service, or less than 10 years if at least 5 years
were after 1995, and a current connection with the railroad industry if there is
no survivor immediately eligible for a monthly annuity upon the employee's
If the employee did not have 10 years of service before 1975, the lump sum is
limited to $255 and is payable only to the widow(er) living in the same
household as the employee at the time of the employee's death.
If the employee had less than 10 years of service but had 5 years after 1995, he
or she must have met social security's insured status requirements for the lump
sum to be payable.
If the employee had 10 years of service before 1975, the lump sum is payable to
the living-with widow(er). If there is no such widow(er), the lump sum may be
paid to the funeral home or the payer of the funeral expenses. These lump sums
averaged $1,012 in fiscal year 2012.
The railroad retirement system also provides, under certain conditions, a
residual lump-sum death benefit which ensures that a railroad family receives at
least as much in benefits as the employee paid in railroad retirement taxes
before 1975. This benefit is, in effect, a refund of an employee's pre-1975
railroad retirement taxes, after subtraction of any benefits previously paid on
the basis of the employee's service. This benefit is seldom payable.
11. How does a person get an estimate of, or apply for, survivor benefits?
Active or retired employees who are concerned about the amount of benefits which
would be payable to their survivors may receive estimates from the nearest RRB
Applications for railroad retirement or survivor benefits are generally filed at
one of the RRB's field offices, or with an RRB representative at one of the
office's Customer OutReach Program (CORP) service locations, or by telephone and
mail. Persons can contact an office of the RRB by calling toll free at
1-877-772-5772 or at www.rrb.gov. Most agency offices are open to the public
from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, except on Federal holidays.