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Social Security Survivor Benefits: The Complete Guide

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 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 On Survivor Benefits

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 $18,240 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 $48,600. 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.

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.

Questions?

If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too. Also…if you haven’t already, you should join the 100,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel!

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Shannon hutchison
Shannon hutchison
3 months ago

I’m on Ssi have been since 1991 also my dad passed a few years ago maybe 5 yes but he was drawing disability benefits not Ssi he worked made good money all his life so just reg disability strokes heart attacks etc started drawing his check so My time on Ssi meets the 22 yr requirement for survivors bennifits and all however I applied couple years ago etc they turn me down cause said ok I was married divorced while on Ssi Married again lost my Ssi due to my new husband made to much money yeah rite we struggled… Read more »

Elaine
3 months ago

If my boyfriend named me as his beneficiary and he was on social security how does that benefit please up after the death

Carolyn Rupp
4 months ago

I’m receiving survivorship benefits along with my 13 year old son. When he turns 18 and loses his benefits, will lose mine as well I’m 45

Carolyn Rupp
4 months ago

Survivorship benefits for parents of children who turned 18

Larry Collins
4 months ago

My Dad died on 12/25/2020. When will I receive his Social Security Benefit. As of 02/02/2021 I have not received my Dad’s death benefit.

Janey M Lewis
Janey M Lewis
4 months ago

Can I draw off mine social security now going on 65 in April would it be more than I’m drawing now off widow benefits just wandering thanks

Marcia J
Marcia J
5 months ago

If you have two full retirement ages, survivor and individual, which one is used to determine your benefits? Individual retirement age is in Jan 2022 but survivor is Nov 2021.

Chris m
Chris m
7 months ago

I am 67…my husband dies July 2020….full s…..I filed ____. Website just says processing for these months..no other word..no 250…..trying to live on 800……mouse car and all about to go into default…..does s pay the months they did not pay for along with the re payment s?????,,…any one know????

Janey M Lewis
Janey M Lewis
7 months ago

Can I draw more off my earnings now at 64 if I switch

Minerva
Minerva
8 months ago

I applied for spouse benefits in July 2 and is October no answer. I called SS and they said is approved but no money is coming. I keep calling but no answer. What should I do?

Janey M Lewis
Janey M Lewis
9 months ago

I keep getting calls bout my s.s disability! Had a heart attack and died but the doctor brought me back in 2014 can you draw anything had 2 stents

Justin I Smith
Justin I Smith
11 months ago

My wife just passed leaving me with our 2 children. She was a stay at home mom. We were not officially married but together for 16 years. Our children are 7 and 11. Are we eligible for anything?

Riana Keller
Riana Keller
11 months ago

How long does it take to start receiving survivor benefit payments once the claim has been adjudicated?

Dakota
Dakota
11 months ago

My son father passed away at the beginning of May. We just applied for his benefits today. They said he would get a check every weds of the month. Will he get any back paid or will his first payment be the third weds of July?

Kathryn M. Orlow
1 year ago

I am born 3-9-1940,,,,,,,, was widowed 1st time, at 37, continued to work, and 12/1969 at I remarried, he had cancer on day 1, died 9-2000, I was 60, took his ss, don’t know if he ever took his wife’s benefits (she died in 1985), so when he died 9-2000, I applied for social security benefits….(received $800.00, now receive 1292.00). I would like to know if I will receive a check from the government now because of this coronavirus?

I am now 80 years old.

jeff d ellis
jeff d ellis
1 year ago

My son will receive benefits for about 6 more months but would like to get a job. Will this affect his benefits? He i 8 now but benefits have been extended to July 31 when he finishes school.

Kevin Patrick Fletcher
Kevin Patrick Fletcher
1 year ago

My wife just died and I just filed for my SS early and just got my 1st check. Now I will have to go back to work. Can I collect her survivors benefit until I collect mine later now that I just starting getting mine? I will have to stop mine now.

William RANDALL
William RANDALL
1 year ago

I am 74 years old and was on disability at age 42 which changed to full retirement automatically at age 67. My spouse is 40 years of age. Should I pre-decease my spouse before her age of 67. What will be the formula of her SSA Widows benefit. Will she draw what I am being paid at my death or what I would have been paid had I survived until she reached full retirement age.

Jocelyn Meredith
Jocelyn Meredith
1 year ago

My husband of 38 years died 10 years ago at age 55. I remarried at age 56. I started collecting my own benefit at age 62 which was only $235 per month because I was mostly a stay at home mom for most of our married life together. I am now 65 years old. Now with Medicare deduction I get $29 per month. Is there any way I can collect my deceased husbands benefits now at age 65? It seems unfair that you are disqualified just because of the age you remarry at.

Kathryn Biggs
Kathryn Biggs
1 year ago

My 16 year old is quitting school. In Georgia can she still get her survivors benefits from her deceased father,?

Peggy Osgood
Peggy Osgood
1 year ago

I am 76 yrs old and receive S/S plus a PERS from Nevada. I lost part of my S/S when I retired because of the “windfall”. My husband died in Sept. I called S/S in Oct to do a phone interview and it never happened, so I went to the main office here and filed. That was Nov 7. To date I have never heard a word on any of the benefits due me, we were married 27 years. I went to another office today and was told I should keep my S/S income as it was more than I… Read more »

Died two years ago and I want to know if there’s a
Died two years ago and I want to know if there’s a
1 year ago

My sister x husband Died two years ago and I want to know if there’s any survivor benefits for a divorce it’s a surviving spouse when that can be collected how long you would have to been married for etc. etc.

Robin Benson
Robin Benson
1 year ago

I started drawing ss at 62. Husband was 11 years younger than me. I only recieve $925 per month. He made a lot more money but he passed away at 53. Can I get any SS from him or not, or do I have to wait would have been his retirement age?

Jean Repose
Jean Repose
1 year ago

How soon after filing for survivor benefits do they take effect

Kate
Kate
1 year ago

My husband died Sept. 4th, we applied for survivor benefits Oct. 29 and got the approved favorable decision on Nov. 6th for lump sum and monthly payments for 2 kids and myself. Will I get the direct deposit amount this month…November? I heard it is normally 3rd Wednesday of each month but did not know when I would actually get the back pay and lump sum amount and then the ongoing monthly amount?

Kimberly Kerr
Kimberly Kerr
1 year ago

My husband died at 56 iam 36 . He was trying to get his disability.

Laura M Hunter
Laura M Hunter
1 year ago

If I get disability and your childs fathers dies and he apply for survivor benefits will it effect my disability check?

recase
recase
1 year ago

i recieve survivors benefits from the va will my social security survivors benefits be deducted from that

Lisa Replinger
Lisa Replinger
1 year ago

I am currently 42 and have been receiving SSD since 2006. My late husband was in the military and died while active duty in 2012 at age 39. Would I be eligible for survivor’s benefits from SSA? If so, at what age would I be eligible to file for his SSA SB’s? I currently receive VA DIC, Military SB’s (less than $200), and my own Disability benefits. We were married for a little over 2 years when he died, and I have not remarried (and never will). So what or when should I seek benefits, if any, from SSA?

Josh
Josh
1 year ago

If I was considered disabled before the age of 22 by the social security department and my Dad passed away would I of had to be living under his roof at the time of death to collect survivors benefits?I’m 28 now and I’m on both SSI and SSDI so I know if approved I would take the greater of the 2 but there would be no more SSI.Second question,if I’m approved for survivor benefits do I still get to make unlimited income in retirement without affecting my survivor benefits.and if I decide to try and go back to work after… Read more »

Joseph Boone
Joseph Boone
1 year ago

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
Ghada
1 year ago

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

Sandy
Sandy
1 year ago

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
Jeff
1 year ago

What happens if I get servivor benefits and have a kid

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
1 year ago

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

D. Welte
D. Welte
1 year ago

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
Katherine zeigler
1 year ago

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
Ashley
1 year ago

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
Janice
1 year ago

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
Anne
1 year ago

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
RUTH
1 year ago

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
Karen
1 year ago

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
Lillian
1 year ago

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
Tami V
1 year ago

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
Gabriella
1 year ago

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
Sarah Olson
1 year ago

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

Woodrow Boyd
Woodrow Boyd
1 year ago

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
Kara A. Cox
1 year ago

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
Kumutha
1 year ago

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?

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