Social Security Survivor Benefits: The Complete Guide to Who Gets What and How to Calculate It

social security survivor benefits

Whenever I’m asked about how Social Security survivor benefits work, I have a simple answer:

At death of the first spouse, surviving spouses receives the higher of:

  • Their own monthly benefit, or
  • The monthly benefit of the deceased.

That’s the clean and straightforward answer, but it’s not quite that simple.  Although Social Security survivor benefits really are pretty simple, every family is different.  Unique situations and variables can introduce some complexity.

Lump Sum Death Benefit

First, let’s deal with the one-time payment formerly called a “funeral benefit.”  Upon the death of a Social Security beneficiary, the Social Security Administration pays a lump-sum death payment of $255. Needless to say, the $255 one time payment doesn’t quite cover the cost of a funeral. It’s been stuck at that level for several years and inflation has significantly eroded its useful value.

There are three categories of people who may receive the death payment:

  1. A surviving spouse, who was residing with the deceased spouse, or
  2. A surviving spouse, who was not residing with the deceased, but was receiving benefits based upon the work record of the deceased spouse, or who becomes eligible for benefits after the death of the spouse, or
  3. A surviving child, who was receiving benefits based upon the work records of the deceased parent, or who becomes eligible for benefit after the death of the parent.  The payment is divided evenly among all eligible children.

If there are no eligible survivors in either of these three categories, then no death benefit is paid.

Even though $255 isn’t a lot, who wants to pass on money that’s rightfully theirs?  If the eligible spouse or child is not receiving benefits at the time of death, they must apply for benefits within two years in order to receive the death payment.

Who Is Eligible For Spouse Survivor Benefits?

Many surviving spouses are eligible for monthly benefits from Social Security, based upon their age, disability, children at home, or some combination thereof.  In general, spouse survivor benefits are available to:

  • Surviving spouses, who were married at least 9 months, beginning at age 60.  Benefit amount may depend on the age at which you file for benefits.  Note: there are multiple exceptions to the 9 month requirement.
  • Disabled surviving spouses, who were married at least 9 months, beginning at age 50.  Benefit amount may depend on the age at which you file for benefits.  Note: there are multiple exceptions to the 9 month requirement.
  • Surviving spouses, of any age, caring for the deceased’s child aged 16 or younger or disabled.
  • Former spouses, who were married at least 10 years, beginning at age 60.  Benefit amount may depend on the age at which you file for benefits.

 Calculating the Benefit Amount

Figuring out how much you’ll receive in Social Security survivor benefits requires a little math.

The simple explanation is that at the death of the first spouse, surviving spouses receives the higher of:

  • Their own benefit, or
  • The benefit of the deceased.

But this simple explanation doesn’t consider the two main factors that will determine this amount.

Those two factors are:

(a) what age the deceased filed for benefits and
(b) when the surviving spouse decides to file.

If The Deceased Never Filed For Benefits

If the deceased spouse never filed for benefits, but died on or before their full retirement age, the calculation is relatively easy. The survivor receives the deceased’s full retirement age benefit, adjusted for the survivors’s filing age. (See chart below in Step #2 for age-based reductions.)

If the deceased spouse never filed for benefits, and died after their full retirement age, the calculation is still easy. The survivor receives the deceased’s benefit in the same amount it would have been on the date of his death (including delayed retirement credits,) reduced for the filing age of the survivor.  (See chart below in Step #2 for age-based reductions.)

If The Deceased Filed For/Was Receiving Benefits

But what if the deceased spouse filed for benefits before he passed away? If this is the case, it is just a little more complicated.  You’ll have to use both steps listed below to determine the benefit amount.

Step #1: Determine MAXIMUM Survivor Benefit

The maximum survivor’s benefit is the most that a surviving spouse will receive at their full retirement age. This maximum amount will then be reduced for the survivor’s filing age.

If the deceased spouse filed before full retirement age, the surviving spouse is entitled to a maximum of:

a) the actual benefit the deceased was receiving or
b) 82.5% of the deceased’s full retirement age benefit, whichever is higher. (More on this weird 82.5% rule in a moment.)

If the deceased spouse filed for benefits after full retirement age, the surviving spouse is entitled to a maximum of the actual benefit of the deceased including any credits for delayed filing.

maximum social security survivor benefit chart

Step #2: Age-Based Reduction to Maximum Benefit

Once you calculate the maximum Social Security survivor’s benefit, you then need to find out how much of that benefit you are entitled to receive. Unless you are disabled, you can file for widow’s benefits as early as age 60. If you do, there’ll be a 28.5% reduction to the maximum benefit amount. As you get closer to your full retirement age, the reduction starts to lessen until it goes away completely at your survivor’s full retirement age. The chart below illustrates how a Social Security survivor benefit will be reduced based on the survivor’s age.

age based social security survivor benefit reduction

When It DOESN’T Pay to Delay Filing (the weird 82.5% rule)

If your deceased spouse filed for benefits before their full retirement age, there is an additional rule you need to know. The Social Security Administration has a “widow’s limit” that comes into effect if your deceased spouse filed for benefits early. This rule simple states that if your deceased spouse filed early, you’ll be forever limited to either the amount they were actually drawing, or 82.5% of their full retirement age benefit.

So, if this describes your situation, you need a filing plan! Heck…you need a filing plan anyway, but especially if your deceased spouse filed early.

Here’s why. There may not be a reason to delay filing for survivor benefits beyond your age 62 and 4 months!

For example, let’s assume Jim’s full retirement age benefit was $2,000. However, he filed at 62 and began receiving and age-based reduced benefit of $1,500. Two years later he died. Because of his early filing, the MOST his surviving spouse will receive is the greater of his actual benefit ($1,500) or 82.5% of his full retirement age benefit ($2,000 x 82.5% = $1,650)

If you’ll check the chart in step #2 above, you’ll see that she’d hit the 82.5% ($1,650) of his benefit right in between age 62 and 63 (62 and 4 months to be precise). This means that there would be no reason to wait beyond her age 62 and 4 months to file for survivor benefits.

Advanced Filing Strategies for Survivors

Law changes in 2016 did away with many of the Social Security filing strategies. The one that remains belongs to survivors and it can be powerful. It works like this.

If you have a benefit based on your own work history, it could make sense to file for a reduced survivor’s benefit as early as 60. While you are drawing your survivor benefit, your own benefit is growing every month you delay filing for it. Generally, these adjustments could grown your benefit by 77% from age 62 to age 70. At age 70, you simply switch back to your own benefit (which is now higher).

Here’s an example:

Paula has her own benefit of $1,500 per month that she could take at 67, her full retirement age. Her husband passed away and she is eligible for a survivor benefit of $1,200 per month. If she restricts her application to a survivor benefit only, she can collect benefits while letting her own benefit grown.

Age 62-69 : $1,200 per month – Survivor Benefit
Age 70+     : $1,860 per month – After switching to her own benefit

The Social Security Administration discusses this strategy at this link.

Earnings Limit

If you file for any Social Security retirement benefit (your own, spousal or survivor’s) before your full retirement age, there is a limit to how much you can earn. The fact that this also applies to survivor benefits will often catch individuals by surprise.

If you are under full retirement age you are limited to $16,920 in wages or net earnings from self employment. If you exceed that limit, your benefit will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you go over. The one exception is the calendar year you turn full retirement age. For that period, your limit is a much higher $44,880. The amount they’ll reduce your benefit by is more generous as well.

Once you are full retirement age, there is no limit to the amount you can earn while drawing Social Security.

ssa survivor benefit earnings limit

Benefits Available to Children & Parents

Eligible spouses aren’t the only ones that can receive Social Security survivor benefits. Dependent children and parents may also be entitled.

If you want to learn more, here are the best resources on the topic:

Children’s Benefits:

Social Security Benefits for Children: The 4 Most Important Things You Should Know

Social Security Benefits for Grandchildren

Parent’s Benefits

Social Security Benefits for Dependent Parents -Article by Mike Piper, the author of “Social Security Made Simple.”

How To Claim Survivor’s Benefits

To begin receiving survivor’s benefits, you must make a claim with the Social Security Administration.  Survivor’s benefit’s claims may not be made online.  You can start the claims process over the telephone, 1-800-772-1213, or go to your local Social Security office.  Making an appointment may reduce your wait time.

The death should be reported to the Social Security Administration as soon as possible.  In many cases, the funeral home can make that notification.  You will have to provide the funeral home with the deceased’s Social Security number.

Documents To File A Social Security Survivor Claim

The Social Security claims process may require the following documents.  While each document may not be required, it is easier to come prepared than to have to make several trips or follow-up appointments.

  • Proof of death—either from a funeral home or death certificate;
  • Your Social Security number, as well as the deceased worker’s;
  • Your birth certificate;
  • Your marriage certificate, if you are a widow or widower;
  • Dependent children’s Social Security numbers, if available, and birth certificates;
  • Deceased worker’s W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year; and
  • The name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be deposited directly into your account.

If you don’t have all the documents you need, start the claims process anyway. In many cases, your local Social Security office can contact your state Bureau of Vital Statistics and verify your information online at no cost to you. If they can’t verify your information online, they have other ways to help you get the information you need.