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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Joseph Boone
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Joseph Boone

Friend’s wife died at 81 and he is 86 what does he needed to do from a social security stand point want me to take him to the social office

Ghada
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Ghada

My husband passed away 2 years ago so can you please tell me which form will file .

Sandy
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Sandy

My husband died at 41 we’ve been married 15 years and have one child age 14 a d a other a out to be 19, can i collect any type of survivor benefits?

Jeff
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Jeff

What happens if I get servivor benefits and have a kid

Elizabeth
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Elizabeth

My mom passed away 16 years ago I was 21 I am now 39 am I or was I eligible for anything?

D. Welte
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D. Welte

I was married 22 years to my late husband and widowed at age 44. I am now 61 years old. I want to start collecting SS when I am 62. My late spouse born in 1943 was 58 years old when he died. He never collected any SS benefits. We never had any children. At age 46, I remarried in 2004 to my current husband who was born in 1958 and he is receiving SS Disability benefits. My late husband earned more money in his lifetime than me or my current spouse. Am I entitled to collect survivors benefits on… Read more »

Katherine zeigler
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Katherine zeigler

My Children’s father passed away and I applied for their survival benefits. There is also a third child who is included in the application, but the mother of the child doesn’t have proof that he is her father. So they are holding my children’s part up waiting on her to submit paperwork. Is there anything I can do to get my children’s money going?

Ashley
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Ashley

My husband passed away from a medical condition at age 40. We have been married over 3 years but have no biological children together. Can I receive benefits?

Janice
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Janice

My 12-year old son has been receiving survivor benefit monthly since his father (my spouse) passed away last 2017. But the checks were being sent to my sister in-law since she was the one who applied for my late husband’s disability benefits while he was still alive and disabled. What do I need to be able to transfer the responsibility of a trustee for my son from my sister in law to me? My son is in my care the whole time.

Anne
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Anne

My husband and I were divorced for less than a month when he passed away. He was 53 at the time and I was 50. I never remarried and will be turning 63 shortly. Would I be eligible for survivor benefits?

RUTH
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RUTH

For my widows disability application what if my disabilty only lasted two years after husbands death due to tramua of his shooting death and 3 year investigation and wrongful death suit. I have doctors statement I was unable to work for 12 months after application. Do you need ongoing proof of disability as that is what my doctor does not want to deal with.

Karen
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Karen

My two children were receiving survivors benefits. Now my oldest just turned 18 yo in May and is now ineligible. Will my 16 yo’s benefits increase or remain the same.

Lillian
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Lillian

I wasn’t old enough when my husband passed but reaching 60 in January and was wondering when do I apply for my survivors benefits. Guess the real question is can I start the process now or do I have to wait till I’m 60?

Tami V
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Tami V

I have a question. My husband died at 32 and left behind my 4 children and my step daughter. We all receive the same amount every month. When my step daughter turned 18, mine and my 4 children amount increased by $10o each, totaling the $500 my step daughter was receiving. So how does this work. When one of my kids turns 18, her amount will pass to the other 3 kids or it will just go away. And once all my kids turn 18 do my benefits stop? Also, what happens if I re-marry?

Gabriella
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Gabriella

My father died I’m 17 can I only work 24 hours a week? Or will they take all my money and charge my guardian when I’m 18???

Sarah Olson
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Sarah Olson

My kids get SS survivors benefits. Can they change their last name? No adoption-they want to take my maiden name.

Woodrow Boyd
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Woodrow Boyd

If the mother of my 2 children never worked but she passed away is there any ss benefits to be paid to me for my 2 dependent children??

Kara A. Cox
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Kara A. Cox

Once you take survivors benefits at 60 is that the amount you are locked into forever or will it change to the benefit amount you would receive if you had waited until you are 66?

Kumutha
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Kumutha

If I am age 65.4 in October, filing survivor benefit and still earning how my earning caps is calculated if I am filing for benefit? If I want to apply in October what is the consequence for rest of the year? Should I wait until January to apply? or can I apply in October which my earning limit for the rest of the year not more than $17K? will earning limit calculated for the whole year or from Oct to Dec? How much benefit will be reduced filing 65.4 vs year if 66 in July 2020?

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?

Tiffany
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Tiffany

My son has been getting a serviors check from his father whom has passed, well up until 2 mths ago because someone had called and stated that he was not staying at my house which is not true they suspended his check how can they do this to him

Sarah Strickland
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Sarah Strickland

Question: My husband and I are in the process of getting custody of our Nieces. We have a temporary order as of right now (they have been in our care for a month now) They receive social security benefits from their father passing away. As of right now my sister is still receiving their part. Once we receive the final order can I get there benefits sent to me. She has wasted a lot of there money.

Patricia
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Patricia

I lost my late husband about 7 years ago. My youngest daughter and I was receiving survivors benefits. I applied for disablity and was approved back in 2017. I got remarried in 2017. I lost my survivors benefit because I got remarried. I was wonder because Im 50 now and disabled and still caring for a minor child can I receive my survivors benefit back or would I qualify for any other benefit.

Richard
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Richard

I have a friend who’s wife recently passed away. She was receiving Social Security benefits based on her first husband’s work record. He passed away 20 years ago. Now that she has passed away, does her second husband receive the benefits she was getting based on the work record of her first husband? Both the deceased and surviving spouse are over 90 years old.

Ms. Bush
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Ms. Bush

What are the rights of the living parent of a child receiving Social Security Survivors Assistance if the parents were never married.

Vickie
Guest

My husband is 63, retired, and going to apply for Social Security when he is 66, his FRA. I have been a stay at home wife, so do not have enough SS credits on my own record. If I just apply for spousal benefits at the same time, when I am 64 (my FRA is 66), am I limiting myself to reduced widow benefits if he should die before me?

Dave
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Dave

I am about to turn 62 and applied for retirement benefits and was contacted by Social Security and told I was eligible for widow benefits. I had no idea about this benefit as my wife passed away 25 years ago. Social Security told be I could have been collecting since I was 60. Is it possible to recoup the 2 years of benefits that I was eligible for?

Sabrina Piper
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Sabrina Piper

I have a question. My father died a few years back and I just found out my sister received quiet a bit of money because he was on social security. Why did she receive money but I didnt? I’ve looked online but it just made me even more lost and confused.

Mariah
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Mariah

I just turned 72 years old and I don’t work. My SS of a widow is my only income. But I just got a letter of a REDUCTION OF INCOME for $216.80 for medicare. How can I fight back?. I honestly can’t afford this unless I go and live in a car. This is not a joke.
Mariah

Jay
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Jay

When my husband separated from the military, we had to elect then if we would pay for survivor benefits from his military retirement for me. We did. It was over 30% of his retired pay that they kept. Plus they told us that when I reached retirement age and got Social Security, that any military retirement coming to me would be reduced by the amount of social security I got, but that it would not be reduced below 50% of what he was getting. I saw from your previous post that IF the retirement was not earned by my own… Read more »

Debra
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Debra

Hi, a friend of mine just lost her husband and when she called SSA, they told her that she couldn’t claim his SS benefits because someone else already had. She is his second wife (around 15 years) and they were married at the time of his death. Could this be true? Isn’t there only one actual widow who can claim his SS benefits? Thanks!

Tim
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Tim

I will be 60 in November. My wife passed away April 22 2018. I plane to apply for survivors benefits at 6o. She had just gotten her disability a few months earlier if that makes a difference. How much survivors benefits will I receive ? Will it change what I draw when I retire?

Yesenia
Guest
Yesenia

If i was pregnant when my boyfriend passed away and I have another daughter with him and she receives benefits can I apply for the daughter I just had but I wasn’t able to sign his last name on her birth certificate because her dad was deceased do I include her in survivors benefits because I was denied for not having his last name on birth certificate what can I do

Lee Decardenas
Guest
Lee Decardenas

Ready for this one… My sister passed away two years ago. Her son (now aged 6) came to live with my family and we just finished the legal adoption process. He still receives his birth mother’s survivor benefits from Social Security. I am in the process of being evaluated for total and permanent unemployability with both the VA and Social Security. Will my adopted son receive both his birth mother’s survivor benefits and my disability concurrently from social security when I begin to receive SSD? If not, which one will cease? (And) If not, will the total maximum family benefit… Read more »

Rebecca
Guest
Rebecca

A friend told me that she collected survivor benefits after she turned 60. They would start coming in January and when she hit the maximum she could earn without penalty she called SS and told them she had done so and asked them to suspend payments the remainder of that year. The next January they started up again automatically. I have a SS appointment in June as I am turning 60 in July. The person I spoke with on the telephone said I may earn too much to be able to draw benefits at all. I won’t hit the maximum… Read more »

Yesenia
Guest
Yesenia

Can my daughter receive survivors benefits if my boyfriend passed away when I was pregnant

Sheri Salise
Guest
Sheri Salise

My husband died October 2017, he was receiving SSN benefits. I did not apply for them, using this amount as a nest egg. I knew you had to collect before 2 years after his death. (not inserted in $250 survivors benefit). I am trying to get his back pay SSN monthly benefits. Am I out of luck? Any help is so very appreciated.

Thank You,

Sheri Scalise

Me Peterson
Guest
Me Peterson

I have a complex question. I was getting ss for caring for my 8 year when my previous husband died. I remarried before age 60. Do I still get ss for caring for my daughter? She is receiving ss benefits

Cristina Ramirez
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
marie cris

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

kelly
Guest
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.