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Social Security Survivor Benefits Overview

While the Social Security system is best known for its retirement benefits, it also provides aid to families of workers who have died. In the unfortunate instance when a worker dies, Social Security survivor benefits can provide important income to survivors. Widows and widowers, divorced surviving spouses, young children, and even dependent parents of a worker may be entitled to receive monthly benefits.

Who Is Eligible for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Survivor benefits are designed to protect the families of workers against loss of income in the case of a worker's untimely death. Family members who may be eligible to receive monthly Social Security survivor benefits are:

  • A widow or widower who is age 60 or older. Those who are disabled may receive benefits earlier, at age 50. Any widow or widower who is caring for the deceased worker's young child will be eligible for benefits regardless of age.
  • An unmarried child under 18 years old, or 22 years old if disabled. Stepchildren, grandchildren and adopted children may receive benefits under certain circumstances.
  • A dependent parent, 62 years or older, of the deceased worker.
  • A surviving divorced spouse, who is age 60 or older and was married to the deceased for at least 10 years.

How Your Survivor Benefit Amounts are Determined

As with retirement insurance, Social Security survivor benefits are based on how much a worker has contributed to Social Security. Generally, you need 10 years of work to qualify for Social Security benefits. Special rules apply to the families of workers who have died young. You can calculate your benefits online through the Social Security Administration's retirement estimator, or find out exactly what benefits you're entitled to by requesting your Social Security Statement online.

Each survivor is entitled to a percentage of a deceased worker's benefits, depending on their relationship to the deceased. However, the total benefits available to all family members can't exceed 150 to 180 percent of the deceased's benefit amount. In cases where the maximum benefit is reached, all benefits are reduced proportionately.

Widows and Widowers

A widow or widower at full retirement age is entitled to 100% of the deceased spouse's benefits. Full retirement age is 65 years old for those born before 1940, increasing slowly to 67 years old for those born after 1962.

A widow or widower may choose to receive survivor benefits earlier, starting at age 60. However, taking early benefits will reduce the amount received. A widow or widower who is disabled can receive a reduced amount starting at age 50. If the widow or widower has a child younger than 16, he or she is entitled to 75% of the worker's benefits, regardless of the widow or widower's age.

Children, Dependent Parents and Divorced Spouses

Children under 18 are entitled to 75% of the worker's benefits, while dependent surviving parents are entitled to 82.5%, for one parent, or 75% for both parents. A surviving divorced spouse can receive the same benefits as a widow or widower if he or she was married to the deceased worker for at least 10 years.

How to Apply for Social Security Survivor Benefits

Unlike retirement and disability benefits, you can't apply for Social Security survivor benefits online. If a member of your family has died, contact your local Social Security office to report the death and apply for benefits. The Social Security office will need several documents from you. These can be originals or certified copies. Before applying you should gather:

  • Proof of death such as a death certificate
  • Social Security numbers: yours, the deceased and any dependent parents' or children's
  • Birth certificates and divorce papers if you're applying for benefits as a child or divorced spouse
  • The deceased worker's most recent W-2 forms or tax returns
  • Your bank account information, for direct deposit

If your claim has been rejected or your benefit is less than you believe you deserve, you have the right to appeal the decision.

Special Circumstances to Keep in Mind

Whether you get survivor benefits and what amount you receive can be impacted by certain special circumstances. For example, if you or your child are disabled, you may be able to receive benefits earlier and for a longer time. If you're a widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse, remarrying before you're 60 years old may impact your benefits.

If you have questions about what Social Security survivor benefits may be available to you and your family, contact a qualified Social Security attorney to learn about your rights and discuss your options.

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