When a participant in a retirement plan dies, benefits the participant would have been entitled to are usually paid to the participant’s designated beneficiary in a form provided by the terms of the plan (lump-sum distribution or an annuity).
ERISA protects surviving spouses of deceased participants who had earned a vested pension benefit before their death. The nature of the protection depends on the type of plan and whether the participant dies before or after payment of the pension benefit is scheduled to begin, otherwise known as the annuity starting date. The summary plan description will tell you the type of plan involved and whether survivor annuities or other death benefits are provided under the plan.
When a plan participant dies, the surviving spouse should contact the deceased spouse’s employer or the plan’s administrator to make a claim for any available benefits. The plan will likely request a copy of the death certificate. Depending upon the type of plan, and whether the participant died before or after retirement payments had started, the plan will notify the surviving spouse as to:
the amount and form of benefits (in other words, lump sum or installment payments under an annuity);
whether death benefit payments from the plan may be rolled over into another retirement plan; and
if a rollover is possible, the method and time period in which the rollover must be made.
Publication 554, Tax Guide for Seniors
Publication 559, Survivors, Executors and Administrators
Publication 560, Retirement Plans for Small Business (SEP, SIMPLE and Qualified Plans)
Publication 575, Pension and Annuity Income
Publication 590-B, Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)
Topic 558 - Tax on Early Distributions from Retirement Plans