When it comes to Social Security, retirement benefits make up the bulk of the benefits — more than 47 million Americans currently receive them. But the Social Security Administration also provides critical benefits to the family members of deceased workers. Six million family members receive survivors benefits, which function almost like a life insurance policy.
As with retirement benefits, there are some choices to be made about claiming survivors benefits. Read on to learn how to make the most of your options.
What are Social Security survivors benefits?
Social Security survivors benefits are available to spouses, ex-spouses, children and dependent parents of someone who worked and paid into the Social Security system. The amount of the benefits depends on the beneficiary’s age and relationship to the worker, as well as the lifetime earnings of the worker who died. The more the deceased worker earned, the higher the benefits will be.
Survivor vs. spousal benefits
There are many differences between spousal benefits and survivor benefits, but the simplest distinction is that spousal benefits are those you receive while your spouse is alive while survivors benefits are based on a deceased worker’s earnings.
The most you can receive in spousal benefits is 50% of your spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA), which is the size of the retirement benefit they are eligible for when they reach full retirement age. While survivors benefits are also based on a worker’s earnings over their lifetime, survivors can in some cases collect up to 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit (assuming the surviving spouse is at least full retirement age).
If you are already receiving spousal benefits and your spouse dies, the Social Security Administration will automatically convert your benefits to survivors benefits after the death is reported to the office. You can’t receive both at the same time.
How to report a death to Social Security
Funeral homes usually handle reporting a person’s death to Social Security. You’ll need to make sure the funeral home has the person’s Social Security number to make that happen. If you want to report the person’s death yourself, call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can also visit a local Social Security office in person. Deaths can’t be reported online.
It’s best to report the death as soon as reasonably possible, since benefits start only after you apply.
Eligibility for survivors benefits
To qualify for survivors benefits, you must be a:
- Widow or widower, age 60 or older (age 50 if you are disabled), who was married to the deceased for at least nine months
- Widow or widower at any age who is caring for a deceased worker’s child who is younger than age 16 or disabled
- Divorced spouse of the deceased (in some cases)
- Minor or disabled child
- Dependent parent of the deceased age 62 or older (in some cases)
- Stepchild or grandchild of the deceased (in some cases)
The worker who died must have paid into the Social Security system during his or her career. Workers earn up to four credits a year (in 2019, $1,360 in income equals one credit). Once the worker has earned 40 credits, his or her family is fully insured under the program — most Americans are in this category. But the families of workers who have less than 40 credits can still qualify for some survivors benefits. And under a special rule, if someone worked for only a year and a half in the three-year period before their death, their children and spouse can be eligible for benefits.
Your age matters
A spouse of a deceased worker can begin collecting survivors benefits at age 50 if he or she is disabled and the disability developed within seven years of the worker’s death.
Those who aren’t disabled can begin collecting at age 60. However, you can increase the size of your benefits by waiting to claim them until your full retirement age. (Your benefits don’t increase by waiting to file after you reach full retirement age).
The full retirement age by birth year (for survivors) is:
When to claim survivors benefits
If you will be eligible to collect Social Security retirement benefits based on your own work history, you’ll need to decide whether you want to do that or take the survivors benefits. You can switch later if doing so gets you a higher benefit.
If you’re already receiving retirement benefits and the survivors benefit would be larger, you can switch to survivors benefits. If you became eligible for retirement benefits within the last 12 months and suffered the loss of a spouse, you might be able to withdraw your retirement application and instead apply for survivors benefits, then reapply for retirement benefits later, when they will often be worth more.
Working and survivors benefits
You can still earn wages while you’re receiving survivors benefits, with a caveat: If you haven’t reached your full retirement age, some of your survivors benefits might be withheld. For 2019, $1 from your survivors benefits will be deducted for every $2 you earn above $17,640.
Note that only wages count, not pensions, interest, investment earnings or other government benefits.
Children and survivors benefits
Kids can receive their deceased parent’s Social Security benefits if they are unmarried and younger than 18, or up to 19 if still in high school. In addition, if the children are disabled, regardless of their age, and the disability occurred before they turned 22, they are eligible for survivors benefits. Adult children who are not disabled are not eligible to receive their parents’ Social Security benefits.
If you’re raising your deceased spouse or ex-spouse’s minor or disabled child, no matter how old you are, you also can receive survivors benefits. The child must be under age 16, unless he or she is disabled.
There are limits to how much one family can collect in Social Security benefits. These limits can get complicated, but usually a family maximum will be between 150 and 188% of the worker’s basic Social Security benefit. Benefits paid to a divorced spouse don’t count toward the family limit.
Other family members
Adopted children are treated the same as biological children under the survivors benefits guidelines. Stepchildren can receive survivors benefits if they were at least one-half supported by the stepparent who died.
Grandchildren can be eligible for benefits if their parents are disabled or have died and the grandchildren were living with the grandparent who died.
Parents, step parents or adoptive parents age 62 and older who are not eligible for their own benefits might be eligible for benefits if they were financially dependent on the deceased worker for at least half of their support. Marrying after the child’s death might end your survivors benefits.
Former husbands and wives of a worker who dies can receive survivors benefits (at the same percentages as widows and widowers), as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. If you remarry before age 60, you won’t be eligible for survivors benefits, but remarrying after age 60 won’t affect your eligibility.
How survivors benefits are calculated
Survivor benefits are based on a deceased workers’ earnings. If the deceased person hadn’t claimed their Social Security benefits before they died, the survivor or survivors would be entitled to a percentage of the benefit the deceased would have received at full retirement age. If the deceased person lived longer than full retirement age, that amount would be higher because they would have earned delayed retirement credits.
If the deceased person had already started taking their benefits, survivors would receive a percentage of the actual benefit the deceased worker received. That amount will be higher or lower depending on what age the deceased claimed his or her benefits.
If a survivor claims these benefits before their full retirement age, the benefits are reduced by a percentage based on birth year and the number of months until full retirement age.
The percentage of benefits survivors can receive based on their age and their relationship to the deceased worker is as follows:
- A widow, widower or eligible divorced spouse, at full retirement age — 100%
- A widow, widower, or eligible divorced spouse, age 60 or older, but younger than full retirement age — 71% to 99%
- A disabled widow, widower, or eligible divorced spouse, aged 50 to 59 — 71.5%
- A widow, widower, or eligible divorced spouse, any age, with a child younger than age 16, or a disabled child — 75%
- An unmarried child younger than age 18 (or 19 if in high school) — 75%
- Dependent parents, aged 62 and older — 82.5% for one surviving parent; 75% each for two surviving parents
The average monthly survivors benefit for a spouse who is not disabled and not raising minor children is $1,397. Like all Social Security benefits, survivor benefits may increase based on the cost of living.
Lump sum payment
In addition to other benefits, the Social Security Administration provides a lump sum death benefit of $255 to a worker’s surviving spouse or children. To be eligible, you must have lived with the worker at the time of his or her death, or if you weren’t living together, you must have been already receiving benefits based on the worker’s record or you became eligible with the death of the worker.
A child can receive the benefit if there is no eligible living spouse and he or she was already receiving benefits on the worker’s record or became eligible with the death of the worker.
How to maximize benefits
There are several ways you might be able to maximize the amount you collect in survivors benefits:
- While living, both spouses delay taking their Social Security retirement benefits until at least full retirement age or as late as age 70 to increase the size of the survivor benefits that the living spouse receives when one spouse dies.
- If you don’t need the money to live on and your spouse wasn’t receiving Social Security at the time of his or her death, delay claiming your survivors benefits until your full retirement age.
- Calculate whether delaying your retirement benefit until age 70 and taking the survivors benefit until then will pay more in the long run over taking your retirement benefit now and switching to the survivors benefit once you reach full retirement age.
In some cases, the Social Security Administration may pay survivor benefits retroactively. Those situations include:
- Spouses younger than full retirement age who file for survivor benefits within one month of a spouse or ex-spouse’s death can receive one month of retroactive benefits.
- Widows or widowers who wait to file after they reach full retirement age can receive up to six months of retroactive benefits back to the month they reached full retirement age.
- Disabled widows and widowers who file before age 61 are eligible for up to 12 months of retroactive survivor benefits.
How long do benefits last?
Surviving spouses and divorced spouses receive survivors benefits until their death. Benefits for children who aren’t disabled end at age 18 or 19. Disabled children can continue to receive survivors benefits for life.
How to apply for survivors benefits
If you’re not already receiving Social Security, you can file for survivors benefits by calling 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) or visiting a Social Security Administration office. Here are the documents you will likely need either in original form or a certified copy:
Proof of death, either from a funeral home or the death certificate
- Your Social Security number and the deceased worker’s Social Security number
- Your birth certificate
- Your marriage certificate or divorce papers, if the deceased worker was your spouse
- The Social Security numbers and birth certificates of any dependent children
- The deceased worker’s most recent W-2
- Your bank account number so your benefits can be deposited into your account
If you are already receiving Social Security, report the death of your spouse or family member to the Social Security Administration. If you were receiving benefits based on your spouse’s work, those benefits will be switched to survivors benefits rather than spousal. If you’re receiving benefits based on your own work record, contact the Social Security Administration to see if you’re eligible for higher benefits as a widow or widower.
Just as Social Security retirement benefits aim to ensure workers can live a dignified life after they stop working, survivors benefits can provide stability and support to the family of a worker after he or she dies. The benefit can help give workers and their families a little bit of peace of mind both before and after a loss.