Understanding Social Security survivor benefits

6 min read

Who is eligible for Social Security survivor benefits

  • If your spouse, parent, or child passed away and they earned enough Social Security credits through working, you may be eligible for an ongoing survivor benefit.

  • Surviving spouses, minor children, and disabled children are eligible.

  • Social Security survivor benefits for spouses sometimes include divorced spouses.

  • In certain circumstances, stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, or adopted children may also be eligible. 

  • The amount you receive is based on your age when you apply.

Dealing with the loss of a family member is never easy. In addition to the weight of grief and mourning, you are suddenly beset by a host of decisions to make, and potential financial hardships.

It is therefore important to take advantage of any federal benefits that you are entitled to, such as those from Social Security. After all, your loved one paid into the Social Security system with their labor and hard-earned wages, and they would be gratified to see that honorable work help out their loved ones after they are gone. 

Social Security benefits survivors can access

Two different kinds of Social Security benefits may be available to the spouse, child, or parent of a person who has passed away, as long as that person was once a worker who paid into Social Security.

First, there is a lump sum of $255, previously known as a “funeral benefit” but now called a “death benefit.” Clearly this amount will not cover the expense of a funeral these days; it has been fixed for many years and inflation has diminished its value. Even so, this benefit is part of the Social Security program to which you are entitled, and every bit can help.

Second, there is the primary survivor benefit: a monthly amount based on the earnings of the person who passed away. The longer they worked and the more they earned, the higher this benefit will be. Benefits are earned based on a number of “credits,” which are accrued annually. A worker earns up to 4 credits per year, and virtually everyone working will reach this maximum as long as they earned at least $5,880 during the year. 

No one needs more than 40 credits, or 10 years of earning over this limit, to receive a full benefit, and the younger one is, the fewer credits are required. There is also a special rule that allows a spouse caring for your children to receive benefits as long as the worker earned 6 credits, or a year and a half’s work, in the past 3 years. 

There are no limits to what you may spend this benefit on; however, there is a limit on how much survivors may earn themselves and still receive full benefits. These benefits are received directly from the Social Security Administration and are not subject to probate. You may begin accessing them immediately if you are eligible. Social Security benefits are, however, treated as taxable income. 

A surviving spouse becomes eligible for this benefit after their husband or wife’s death. A minor child may also receive this benefit, or a disabled adult child. Dependent parents if they are age 62 or older, are also eligible. Under certain circumstances, divorced spouses, stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, or adopted children may be eligible. 

How to apply for these benefits

Contact the Social Security Administration by phone (800-772-1213, Monday-Friday8am-7pm ET), or in person at your local Social Security office if they are open. You cannot apply for survivor benefits online. The claims process requires a variety of documents and information. While all may not be required, it is better to be over-prepared, so try to have the following:

• The death certificate

• Your Social Security number, as well as your loved one's

• If you are a widow or widower, your marriage certificate

• Any dependent children’s Social Security numbers and birth certificates

• W-2 forms and tax returns for the most recent year

• Your bank’s name, address, and account number so a direct deposit may be set up

If you don’t have any of these documents, you should apply as soon as possible anyway; in many cases, your local Social Security office can contact your state Bureau of Vital Statistics and verify your information online for free.

When should I apply? 

There is no time limit for filing for primary survivor benefits, and they will actually grow if you delay claiming them. However, there is a two-year deadline for claiming the $255 lump-sum benefit. 

For the primary survivor benefit, your age when you apply determines the percentage of the benefit you may receive. For example, a surviving spouse of full retirement age or older receives 100% of the benefit amount. From age 60 to full retirement age, the amount varies between 71.5% and 99%. A disabled widow or widower aged 50 through 59 receives 71.5%, while a surviving spouse of any age who cares for a child under age 16 qualifies for a 75% benefit. 

Benefits are received directly from the Social Security Administration and are not subject to probate.

A child under age 18 (or 19 if still enrolled in elementary or secondary school) or who is disabled qualifies for a 75% benefit. Dependent parents age 62 or older receive 82.5% if there is one surviving parent, or 75% each. 

For many people it may be better to take the survivor benefit immediately, even at a lower percentage, and switch to your own Social Security benefit at age 70. For others it may be more beneficial to delay applying for the survivor benefit until it reaches 100%. A Social Security official will be able to walk you through your specific situation and calculate the total benefit you would receive by choosing either option.

Exclusions and special considerations

If you qualify for Social Security benefits based on your own work history, you can switch to those as soon as age 62, assuming your retirement rate is higher than the survivor benefit. As noted above, many people will opt for the survivor benefit as soon as possible and then switch to their own at full retirement age. 

If you are the beneficiary of a Government Pension Offset, this may reduce your Social Security benefits; you should discuss this with a Social Security representative to make sure you fully understand the implications.

If you remarry before you reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), you cannot receive the survivor benefit. However, if you remarry after that age, you may continue to qualify to receive it. If your new spouse also has a Social Security benefit, however, you may wish to apply on their benefits, as you will receive whichever is the higher amount. If that marriage ends, you may revert to receiving the original survivor benefits the first following full month.

Several people may be entitled to the survivor benefit at once, such as a spouse and children. They may all collect these benefits, however there is family maximum on combined benefits, usually between 150% and 180% of the benefit. For more details, please ask a Social Security Administration official.

Making the most of Social Security

In general, it is best to delay claiming benefits until they have fully matured, however, your health and well-being should not be sacrificed to this end. If claiming benefits early would vastly improve your material conditions, help raise a child or grandchild or care for a disabled loved one, you may want to take them as soon as possible. If you take these benefits early and then change your mind, the Social Security Administration will allow you to repay benefits for a year and restart them at a later date, so you can benefit from the higher payout.

While the Social Security benefits program has not kept up with increases in the overall cost of living over time, it remains an invaluable resource for lifting millions of elderly Americans out of poverty and ensuring a dignified life. Your loved one worked hard during their life to make sure this benefit was available for you to claim. And making full use of it is a way to honor their memory as well.

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.