How Social Security Survivors Benefits Work
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Social Security survivors benefits are paid to spouses and dependents of deceased people who qualified for Social Security retirement benefits. The survivors benefit amount depends on the retirement benefit the deceased person was receiving or could have received, the relationship to the deceased and the applicant’s age.
» MORE: What is Social Security?
Generally, a person is eligible for Social Security survivors benefits if they depended on the income of a deceased person who qualified for Social Security retirement benefits. That could include a spouse, ex-spouse, child or parent.
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 size of the benefit is reduced if the surviving spouse or ex-spouse begins receiving survivors benefits before their full retirement age. That’s 66 or 67, depending on the person’s date of birth.
There are two caveats to this age rule:
If the surviving spouse or ex-spouse has a disability, the spouse can initiate Social Security survivors benefits as early as age 50.
If the surviving spouse or ex-spouse cares for the deceased person’s child who is under age 16 or who has a disability, the spouse can begin getting survivors benefits at any age.
A surviving spouse or ex-spouse becomes ineligible for survivors benefits if they remarry before the age at which they would be eligible for survivors benefits. If they remarry after those age thresholds (age 50 if they have a disability or age 60), they can still get survivors benefits based on their former, deceased spouse’s work history.
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 the survivors benefits they receive are higher than the retirement benefits they could get, they will continue to receive the higher amount.
» MORE: How Social Security is taxed
In addition to survivors benefits, a surviving spouse can receive a one-time Social Security death benefit of $255. Generally, the death benefit is paid to a spouse living with the deceased, but that’s not always the case. 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 can also be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits if they are unmarried and 18 years old or younger, unless they’re still enrolled full time in primary or secondary school, which moves the age cutoff to 19. Children of any age who were diagnosed with a disability before age 22 also qualify for survivors benefits.
Special circumstances apply to stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and adopted children. For example, stepchildren can qualify for survivors benefits if they depended on their deceased stepparent’s income for at least half of their support.
Benefits for parents
The parent or parents of a deceased person can be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits if they are at least 62 years old and relied on their child’s income for at least half of their financial support.
Stepparents or adoptive parents also are eligible for these benefits, as long as they became the deceased person’s parent before that child was 16.
The Social Security Administration sets a cap on how much family members can get in benefits based on one person’s work history. Typically, family benefits can add up to between 150% and 180% of the primary insurance amount (more on this below). 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.
The Social Security Administration calculates survivors benefits based on how much the deceased person could get in retirement benefits at full retirement age. That amount, called the primary insurance amount, is based on the person’s average lifetime earnings. The higher their earnings, the more they would receive in retirement benefits.
The table below shows what percentage of the deceased person’s benefit a surviving family member could get in survivors benefits, depending on their relationship to the deceased person and other factors.
Surviving family member
Percentage of the deceased person’s benefit amount they could be eligible for
Spouse or ex-spouse, full retirement age or older
Spouse or ex-spouse, age 60 to full retirement age
71.5% to 99%.
Spouse or ex-spouse with a disability, age 50 through 59
Spouse or ex-spouse, any age, caring for a child under age 16
One surviving parent
Two surviving parents
75% to each parent.
Source: Social Security Administration
To start receiving Social Security survivors benefits, you need to notify the Social Security Administration that your family member who was eligible for retirement benefits has died. You also might need to apply for survivors benefits. The SSA requires both these steps to be done over the phone by calling 800-772-1213.
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. This typically impacts a person receiving Social Security spousal benefits or child benefits. Once you report your loved one’s death to the Social Security Administration, your monthly benefits will be updated without any further work on your part.
However, if you’re receiving Social Security retirement benefits based on your own work history, you'll need to apply for survivors benefits. That application will initiate a process by the Social Security Administration of comparing 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.