Social Security Survivor Benefits: The Complete Guide

social security survivor benefits


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

At death of the first spouse, surviving spouses receive 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 (a) what age the deceased filed for benefits, if they did at all, and (b) when the surviving spouse decides to file.

If the Deceased DID NOT File 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 survivor’s filing age (see chart below).

If the deceased spouse never filed for benefits, and died after their full retirement age, the survivor receives the deceased’s benefit in the same amount it would have been on the date of the deceased’s death (including delayed retirement credits) reduced for the filing age of the survivor. You can see the next chart for more information on age-based reductions that come into play in both cases.

But what if the deceased spouse filed for benefits before he passed away? If this is the case, it could get a little more confusing.

If the Deceased DID File for Benefits

If the deceased spouse filed for benefit on or after their full retirement age, and the surviving spouse is at full retirement age, the benefit amount payable to the survivor will remain unchanged. If the surviving spouse is less than full retirement age, the amount the deceased spouse was receiving would be reduced by the filing age of the survivor.

If the deceased filed for benefits before their full retirement age, the surviving spouse is entitled to the full retirement age benefit of the deceased (reduced for survivors filing age) but will always be limited to the larger of the actual benefit of the deceased or 82.5% of the deceased’s full retirement age benefit.

This 82.5% limit is a special rule often called the “Widows Limit” but the technical name is the RIB-LIM. It’s meant to offer some protection for surviving spouses when the deceased spouse filed at, or near, the earliest age possible. This rule states that if your deceased spouse filed early, you’ll be forever limited to either the amount they were drawing, or 82.5% of their full retirement age benefit. This rule has been a real lifesaver for some widows!

social security survivors benefit flow chart

Flow Chart for Social Security Survivors Benefits

When it doesn’t pay to delay

Here’s where this gets really interesting. If your deceased spouse filed early for benefits, and you are also under full retirement age, there may be no reason to delay your filing beyond a certain age. It may be possible that your survivor benefit will not increase beyond your age 62 and 9 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. He died two years later. 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).

Based on the reductions for her filing age, she’d hit the 82.5% ($1,650) of his benefit right in between age 62 and 63. Once she was was at this age, there would be no benefit to continuing to delay filing for benefits. Further delay will not increase the survivors benefit!

social security survivors benefit amount for various filing ages

FULL RETIREMENT AGE FOR SURVIVOR BENEFITS

If you were born before 1962, you need to understand that the definition of “full retirement age” is different for survivor benefits than it is for all other benefits.

Knowing exactly when you are full retirement age is important when filing for your survivor’s benefits. Why? Because if the survivor benefit is the highest benefit you’ll be entitled to, there is generally no benefit to delaying your filing beyond that age.

 

Advanced Filing Strategies for Survivors

In early 2018 the Office of the Inspector General released a report with some shocking news. 82% of widows and widowers who are receiving Social Security survivors benefits are actually entitled to a higher monthly benefit payment. The only problem is, the SSA never made them aware of this. This affected an estimated 9,224 widows and widowers 70 and older who could have received an additional $131.8 million in Social Security benefits had they been told they could delay filing for retirement benefits until reaching age 70.

There’s no need to wait for them to tell you about it…let’s jump in right now.

Prior to 2016 there were several popular Social Security filing strategies that would allow an individual to file for certain benefits and later switch back to their own benefits. The benefit of this was to allow their own benefits to grow with the 8% per year delayed retirement credits (from chapter xx) However, 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. Here’s how it works.

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 grows every month you delay filing for it. Generally, these adjustments could grow 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).

Let’s say 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 grow.

From age 62 to 69, she could receive $1,200 per month as a survivor’s benefit. Once her own benefit has grown to the maximum, at age 70 and beyond, she can simply take that and receive $1,860 per month for the rest of her life.

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 $17,040 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 $45,360. 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. You can read my article on the Social Security earnings limit or watch my video.

2018 social security income 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.

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Sandy Coleman
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Sandy Coleman

I’ve been collecting survivor benefits for one year and now I’ve earned to much. But I am losing this job in May. My question is: do I file again in May when my job ends?

michael loughlin
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michael loughlin

I am 71+ receiving Social Security, my wife is 34 and my daughter is 8 years old. When I die will my wife receive my Social Security benefits? Also my daughter is currently receiving a monthly Social Security benefit for schooling since I am over 65 and she is under 18.

Lisa
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Lisa

am I entitled to survivor’s benefits if I no longer have custody of my children if I never remarried?. Can I have my check reinstated?

Robert
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Robert

I am 42 have a 15 year old disabled son deemed disabled at birth and an 8 year old son. For me to collect survivor benefits along with both my children is there an income limit if I work? Or is this an exception due to me having a disabled child?

Kathy
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Kathy

My husband, age 62, receives SSDI. I am 62 and not working. He is expected to pass in 1 or 2 months as his condition is terminal. My first question is would I be able to apply for widows benefits from his SSDI and take that until age 66 (FRA)? At age 66 would I switch to his social security and receive a higher payment? Also, how long does it take to get the first widow benefit check after returning the check that was issued for the month of death?

Rona Browning
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Rona Browning

Ssi benefits

Rona Browning
Guest
Rona Browning

My deceased spouse was receiving ssi so how do you couculate my benefit amount based on that

Janet
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Janet

I need to draw out of my retirement fund if I am a widow will it count as income

steve smith
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steve smith

Need to find some clear guidance on how the SS survivor benefits (in this case mine) are split/calculated for/between current spouse and disabled adult child (receiving SSI before 22) in the event of my death while I am receiving SS benefits. I know they are both entitled and I know there is a family maximum benefit, and I know that my spouse generally has to wait until she is of retirement age to get my benefits (while my disabled child is eligible now), I just would like some explanation of how my earned SS benefits would be split or allocated… Read more »

Heidi krum
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Heidi krum

Hello . I’m heidi . My dad passed in 2004 I think it was .. we weren’t real close and he lived in Illinois and I in Texas and still in texas.. he had 80 000 dollars from a accident he had few years before he passed away .. anyways I was like 16 or 17 at the time he passed . I was to get the money … but my mom here in Texas started receiving the money and said she only got like 5000 of it but I know she got more because I seen the checks coming… Read more »

Sheila
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Sheila

How can a person still receive death benefits for the children of the deceased and the children are in foster care??

Casetta
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Casetta

I have the same problem as keva. We, my daughter and I are in financial DISTRESS
how can I get it restarted.

Anthony
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Anthony

I am guardian of my brother’s three children his wife died the collecting Social Security survivor benefit from her now he died can they collect off him too

Anthony
Guest
Anthony

I have custody of my brother’s kid his wife died the kids are collecting survivor’s benefits now he died do they get to collect from him to would appreciate an answer

Penny Reller
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Penny Reller

This is maybe more a question for you. My husband died 14 years ago and I filed for survivors benefits when I reached age 62. I am now 66, and still employed full time. In September, I had ACDF surgery, and I have been out on ‘short term disability’. The fact is, our insurance company insists that the survivors benefits are my retirement funds, despite the fact that I am working, and have reduced their payment to next to nothing.

Are survivors benefits the same as retirement income?

Janey
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Janey

I’m drawing widow benefits off my last husband that died can I draw benefits off my first husband after he dies after 18 years. Would like to know thanks

Joanne
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Joanne

You talk about filing for survivor benefit and switching to your own, higher, benefit later. Can this be done the other way around. If the survivors own benfits are the smaller benefit. Could the survivor file for their own before before full retirement age then switch to the higher survivor benefit at full retirement age?
Thank you

Courtney
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Courtney

Hi I’m considered a disabled adult minor and I collect servivor bennifits under my dad who is dead I’m trying to find out if my two children who were born after my dad was deacesed would qualify for bennifits under him also based off my being disabled ???

Brenda
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Brenda

My mom’s husband died in August and he had received his benefits for that month. When my mom applied for his benefits it took two months until she finally got his (higher) amount. Will she receive back pay for the lapse in time between his death and when she starts to receive his benefits?

Shelly McCord
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Shelly McCord

If a child changes last name not adoption just name change, will they still receive benefit check from deceased parent?

Keva
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Keva

SO YOU ARE TELLING ME. I’M UNDER THE AGE OF 40 MY HUSBAND WORKED HIS YOUNG ADULT LIFE. HE THEN PASSED AWAY LEAVING ME, HIS YOUNG SON AGE 5 AT THAT TIME. NOW HE JUST TURNED 16 SO MY WIDOWER BENEFITS SUDDENLY STOPS? I THOUGHT I WILL RECEIVE UNLESS I RE-MARRY??? MY SON SCHOOL HOW WILL HE AFFORD THIS YOU HAVE CUT HIS PAY AS WELL.. IM SO LOST NEED HELP

Erin
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Erin

My husband says that after he passes I will receive 75 percent of his benefits and our daughter will also. That would equal roughly 3,000. We only have one child but I’m concerned about the Family Maximum dropping that amount considerably when he passes. Should I be concerned?? He says not to be.

Sharon
Guest
Sharon

Yes my question is, my husband passed away in 2011, at age 42, that say i couldnt get benefits because we was only married 6 years that i had to wait until im 62 years old to get my benefits why is that??? Please email me back at dawsonsharon136@ gmail.com

Sizemore Tamara
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Sizemore Tamara

My son passed away 2 weeks ago, he was 34 and legally separated from his wife for 16 years, can I or she receive benefits, he had brain cancer and was disabled, he was turned down for disability so I’m not real sure if anyone is eligible

Dorothy Fletcher
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Dorothy Fletcher

I’ve looked and can’t find an answer, so hope you can help. My nephew’s father had been dead for years. He was very young when he died, so didn’t have much, if any paid into social security. Can my nephew get survivors benefits if his dad wasn’t working?

Kerstin
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Kerstin

Should Children Receive Social Security Benefits After Their Parent Passes Away Whom Was Receiving Social Security and Did Not Work!?

Deb E
Guest

Will my son’s survivors benefits increase if I don’t get them anymore? He will be 16 in August 2019. I see that I will be penalized if I make over a certain amount. I am wondering if I need to take a leave of absence. I am 56.

Deb E
Guest

My son will be 16 in August 2019. Will I stop receiving widows benefits then? And if I make over 17,040 this year, will I lose the my benefits earlier? Will my son receive more if mine are stopped? I am 56 ,almost 57.

Eric
Guest
Eric

I am 38-years-old and my wife died two years ago at the age of 35. We had one child together, who is now five. My income is about $115,000. Do I qualify for a survivor benefit? Is there an income limit?

maureen v
Guest
maureen v

my husband died overseas and I am having a hard time getting the death certificate. Everytime I contact the consulate and government they tell me to send certain paperwork. I do and they send it back. I call, they tell me I send to much information, then it was they don’t know why it was send back(once it said they needed info about underage children-my youngest is 39!), and I can’t get anywhere. I can’t get social security benefits because I have no death certificate. what do I do now?

Maria
Guest
Maria

My husband died at age 37 and I have bee frustrated because every time I call to get my expected spousal benefit I get told a different amount. I am not allowed to access the information online because you cant have an account for a dead person. I do know I can take the benefit at age 60 if I choose. There is not a chart on the website to tell me the percentage I could get by waiting. When the widow benefits are discussed it is assumed that the person dies closer to age 60 and therefore as the… Read more »

BCM
Guest
BCM

The e-book you show above is not free….at Amazon it is $7.99. It is available to those who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited at $9.99 per month. I asked for the download to my e-mail above a couple of hours ago, but nothing has been downloaded (yet). This is a good topic and is complicated.

Zenith Hames
Guest
Zenith Hames

Can We get benefits

Zenith Hames
Guest
Zenith Hames

My husband died but he didn’t work and I have 3 kids what can I do