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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Gail Depew
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Gail Depew

If I move states, would my benefits change. Example, I live in Michigan but move to Florida, does my amount change?

Cristina Ramirez
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Cristina Ramirez

My mother in law is in Mexico. My father in law passed away. Is she eligible for survivor benefits? Even though she doesn’t reside in the US.

Jessica
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Jessica

Hi my mom (just turned 67) has been receiving survivors benefits from my father and was also working. She recently became ill and is not able to work anymore. Can she get disability now too? With her being “older”, everything is so confusing for me and I don’t know where to start.

George
Guest

I’m collecting Texas Teacher Retirement System benefits and cannot receive Social Security benefits. I have paid into Social Security for over 20 years. If I was to die, would my wife be eligible for Survivor benefits if she does not receive any benefits from my Teacher Retirement System? Thanks!

Billy barrett
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Billy barrett

My wife died two years ago at age 48 can I receive any benifets from her social securty since she was 48

marie cris
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marie cris

can i still file the documents to claim the pension of my father who died last 4 years ago?

kelly
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kelly

the father of my children passed away from drugs,He didnt work to much through out his life,how much money would he have had to earn through out his life for my kids to collect survivors benefits

Distressed mother
Guest
Distressed mother

My daughter age 38 just passed away leaving her husband with only one income. He supports two children, from a previous relationship ages 8 & 10. I called Social Security to inquire about widow/spousal assistance for him, which they said he is not eligible. He is not able to pay the $1800.00 per month child support based on his income alone – are there any exception for men supporting children under 18? Thank you.

Michael
Guest
Michael

My wife and I were going to wait to 70 to maximize – neither of us have taken benefits. Wife was 66 when she passed and I was 67. She has a SS benefit of $2,900 per month at 66. She would have had a SS benefit of $3,600 if she had been 70. Is there any advantage to waiting until I am 70 to apply for survivor benefits?

Ana
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Ana

Is there anywhere online I can read the full requirements that need to be met as a surviving spouse?

Betty Frazier
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Betty Frazier

I am 88. Yrs old worked for 20 yrs married for 38 yrs. never remarried. I updated my soc sec at his death two years ago. His second has now died, would I be eligible for more benefits

Janet Ball
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Janet Ball

I was 58 when my husband passed away, I was told that I could apply for widows benefits but would not receive any benefits until I’m 60. So I did file 2 yrs. ago am I eligible for the payments to start from 2 years ago or will it start from my 60th Birthday?

amos caudill
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amos caudill

how long does it take to get benefits from spouse be signed up since dec 11 almost 4 months

Cheryl James
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Cheryl James

My dad passed March 8th he has two children 1 is collecting SSI now I was told that the 2nd child will not because not collecting ssi

Deeann
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Deeann

I have so many questions about this with which I am guessing are to late but social security said that because me and my husband had no kids I wasn’t going to RECIEVE nothing. And I was informed because he HAD payed a good amount into social security do to the fact he worked some well paying jobs and made good money. I never worked my husband prefers it that way I took care of him he took care of me I never drove a car because if I needed to go some place he would take me I never… Read more »

KIMBERLY SPITZER
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KIMBERLY SPITZER

ONCE I HAVE MET THE ALLOWED AMOUNT OF $17,040 AND START TO GO OVER MY SURVIVORS BENEFIT AMOUNT, AM I ALLOWED TO JUST STOP THE BENEFIT FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR? THEN RESTART BENEFIT FOLLOWING YEAR? ONCE AGAIN STOPPING BENEFIT ONCE I HAVE MET MY ANNUAL ALLOWED LIMIT.

Laura
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Laura

I have a phone appointment with the SS office.
I am the divorced spouse that qualifies for survivor benifits. I have a list of documents that I need to have for that appointment. My question is when or how should I get the documents to the office??
Thanks for any help

Jeanine
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Jeanine

My son receives social security death benefit from his father who passed away when he just turned one year old. I was never married to his deceased dad. My son is 15 now and the money has always come to me because I have always taken care of him. My son is in school full time and no disabilities or anything like that. Will he continue to get the death benefit until he turns 18/graduates or will his survivor’s benefit stop when he turns 16? I am confused because all of the things I read refer to a family benefit… Read more »

Debbie
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Debbie

Am 591/2.Husband passed away11 years ago.Married13 years.When can I draw his S S benefits?Can I work part time.

Anna
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Anna

My husband died 20 years ago. He had 2 children under 18, their mother received the SS benefits for the children. Now the children are adults and I am 63. How do I find out if there is anymore benefits and if I am entitled to them?

Lisa
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Lisa

I have guardianship of my grandchildren who receive death benefits off their dad. My question is is the social sercuity listed under my social security number.

J.A.
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J.A.

my fiance of over and 9 months just recently passed away from heart issues, he now has over 5k on his direct express ssi card. who and where does that money belong or go to now?

Kristy Schuler
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Kristy Schuler

My husband and I are both disabled I’m 55 he’s 60 and we both receive social security disability and we have guardianship of our grandson and him mom passed away one week ago! Can I get Benifits for him?

Debra
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Debra

If my ex-husband signed away his rights in oct.2018 then passed away in Jan 2019 can my children get social security

Diane Brown
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Diane Brown

My son died last year and he had a child age 16, who has been living with his grandparents for the past 7 years. My son was paying child support for his child for years, but his mother got the check and his son never saw a dime of it. His grandparents (on his mother’s side) have total care of his daily needs, his school, his medical care, his physical care, buying clothes, taking him to events, etc.). My son filed a claim with DSS, reporting that the mom didn’t even live with his son, was a drug addict, and… Read more »

Heather Sposato
Guest

I’m the representative payee of my minor sons survivor benefits from the death of his father, my husband. I have a MY SS account online but it only shows my benefit decision info..nothing on my sons..he’s 9 years old. How do/can i view and save info from that account online? It’s the main account since I wasn’t awarded anything myself..per say. Thanks Heather

james buttendorf
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james buttendorf

My grandson is 14, his dad died and was never married but lived with my grandson’s mother. Can he collect survival benefits and for how long?

Sandy Coleman
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
Janet

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

steve smith
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
Sheila

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

Casetta
Guest
Casetta

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

Anthony
Guest
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
Guest
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?