How Social Security Survivors Benefits Work

Social Security survivors benefits go to family members after someone who qualified for retirement benefits dies.
Whitney Vandiver
Taryn Phaneuf
By Taryn Phaneuf and  Whitney Vandiver 
Updated
Edited by Tina Orem

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Social Security survivors benefits are paid to spouses and dependents of deceased people who qualified for Social Security retirement benefits

SSA.gov. Survivors Benefits. Accessed Sep 15, 2023.
. The amount depends on age and relationship, as well as the benefit the deceased person received or could have received. Survivors benefits average $1,454 per month .

How much are Social Security survivors benefits?

The Social Security Administration bases survivors benefits on how much the deceased person was eligible to collect in retirement benefits at full retirement age. If the person had reduced benefits, as is the case if they retired early, the survivors benefits might be lower

SSA.gov. Planning for Your Survivors. Accessed Sep 15, 2023.
.

The tables in the accordions below shows what percentage of the deceased person’s benefit a surviving family member could receive in survivors benefits.

If spouse or ex-spouse is...

Spouse gets this much of deceased's benefit

Ex-spouse gets this much of deceased's benefit

At or beyond full retirement age

100%

100%

Age 60 through full retirement age

71.5%-99%

71.5%-99%

Age 50-59 with disability

71.5%

71.5%

Caring for a child under 16

75%

75%

*FRA: Full retirement age is based on birth year. Your full retirement age might differ from that of the deceased person.

If child is...

Child gets this much of deceased person's benefit

Under 18

75%

Age 19 and enrolled in 12th grade or lower

75%

Has a disability that started before age 22

75%

One parent

Two parents

Age 62 or older

82.5%

75% each

What's the maximum Social Security survivor benefit?

The maximum benefit a family can claim is between 150% to 180% of the deceased person’s Social Security benefit amount

SSA.gov. Benefits for Children. Accessed Sep 15, 2023.
.

  • Because each person’s lifetime income and Social Security contributions are different, the maximum varies from family to family. 

  • If family members collectively exceed the limit, benefits to each member are reduced. 

Benefits paid to an ex-spouse don’t count toward the family limit.

Who qualifies for Social Security survivors benefits

A spouse, ex-spouse, child or parent can claim survivors benefits if they depended on the income of a deceased person who qualified for Social Security retirement benefits.

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Social Security survivor benefits for spouses

A current or ex-spouse of the deceased person can begin receiving Social Security survivors benefits as early as age 60. An ex-spouse is eligible if the marriage lasted 10 or more years. However, the Social Security Administration reduces the benefit if the surviving spouse or ex-spouse begins receiving survivors benefits before reaching full retirement age. The payment amount and eligibility to collect benefits earlier than 60 depends on if they were a current spouse or ex-spouse of the deceased person.

Current spouse

A current spouse is someone who was married to the deceased person when they died. If the surviving current spouse:

  • Remarries before turning 50, they cannot claim survivor benefits

    .

  • Has a disability that started within seven years of the person’s death, they can initiate Social Security survivors benefits as early as age 50.

  • Applies for benefits at age 60, they receive reduced benefits. The size of the reduction depends on several factors.

  • Remarries after turning 60, they will still qualify for survivor’s benefits. However, if they remarry between ages 50 and 59 and get divorced, they might requalify as a spouse for survivor benefits.

  • Has not remarried and cares for the deceased person’s child who is under 16 or who has a disability, they qualify for survivors benefits at any age.

Same-sex spouse

Same-sex spouses qualify for survivors benefits

SSA.gov. Same-Sex Couples. Accessed Sep 15, 2023.
. Because the federal government didn’t recognize same-sex marriages until 2015, the SSA provides benefits in certain situations where state laws prevented you from marrying your partner before they died or shortened the time you were married. Partners in same-sex nonmarital relationships, such as domestic partnerships, may also qualify for benefits.

If the SSA denied survivors benefits when you applied before the federal recognition of same-sex marriage, you can request that the SSA reevaluate your claim. If it finds that you do meet the criteria, you could receive benefits — and you might receive retroactive benefits if the review shows you qualified according to the current marriage criteria at the time of your previous claim.

If you apply or reapply for survivors benefits and you were unable to marry your same-sex partner or were prevented from being married for at least nine months because of state laws, you must provide evidence to support your claim

.

Ex-spouse

An ex-spouse is someone who was divorced from the deceased person when they died. Ex-spouses qualify for survivors benefits at age 60 but must have been married to the deceased person for at least 10 years.

An ex-spouse can collect survivors benefits if they:

  • Are disabled and didn’t remarry before turning 50.

  • Are not disabled and didn’t remarry before turning 60.

  • Are caring for the deceased person’s biological or adopted child, who is under 16 or has a disability.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Did you remarry after your spouse’s death? If your survivor's benefits are less than what you can receive through your new spouse’s record, you can apply for a combination that gives you the higher amount of the two.

If a surviving spouse or ex-spouse qualifies for Social Security retirement benefits based on their own work history, they can still apply for those as early as age 62. However, if their survivors benefits are higher than their own retirement benefits, they will continue to receive the higher amount.

Did you know...

A surviving spouse can receive a one-time Social Security death benefit of $255. The death benefit is paid to a spouse living with the deceased, but there are exceptions.. If there is no surviving spouse, an eligible child can receive the death benefit.

Social Security survivor benefits for children

A deceased person’s children may be eligible for survivors benefits if they are unmarried and meet one of the following criteria:

  • Are 18 years old or younger.

  • Are 19 years old and enrolled full-time in 12th grade or below.

  • 18 years old or older with a qualifying disability that started before they turned 22.

This criteria also applies to children of a same-sex spouse or partner.

Adopted children, stepchildren, grandchildren and step-grandchildren who were dependents of the deceased person can receive benefits in some situations.

Benefits for parents

The parents of a deceased person are eligible for survivors benefits if they meet the following criteria:

  • Are at least 62 years old.

  • Relied on their child’s income for at least half of their financial support.

  • Don’t have a Social Security retirement benefit that pays more than the survivors benefit.

In most cases the parent cannot collect survivor benefits if they married after their child’s death, but there are exceptions to the rule.

Stepparents or adoptive parents also are eligible for these benefits, as long as they became the deceased person’s parent before that person turned 16.

How to apply for Social Security survivors benefits

To start receiving Social Security survivors benefits, you need to notify the SSA that your family member has died. Funeral homes can report this information for you, but you will need to give them the deceased person’s Social Security number for them to report the death.

🤓Nerdy Tip

It is a good idea to notify government agencies when someone has died. They will update their records, which will make it easier to spot identity theft when someone uses your loved one’s information illegally. A list of agencies to contact is available online.

If you’re already receiving Social Security benefits as the spouse or child of the deceased person, you typically won’t need to apply for survivors benefits. Once you report your loved one’s death to the SSA, your monthly benefits will be updated.

However, if you’re receiving Social Security retirement benefits based on your own work history, you'll need to apply for survivors benefits.

The SSA will compare your current benefits with what you’d be entitled to in survivors benefits. If the survivors benefits would provide a higher monthly payment than your own retirement benefits, the SSA will give you the higher benefit.

To report a death to the SSA or apply for survivors benefits, you’ll have to call the SSA at 800-772-1213.

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