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Understanding Social Security Survivor Benefits

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An older woman lost in thought as she applies for Social Security survivor benefits

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Social Security survivor benefits can provide you with much-needed financial support after the difficult experience of losing a loved one. But understanding how survivor benefits work can be confusing if you’re navigating it for the first time. If you’re wondering whether you qualify for Social Security survivor benefits, let’s explore the basics together.

At a glance:

  • Eligibility for survivor benefits and benefit amounts depends on factors like age, relationship to the deceased and the deceased’s work history.
  • You can apply for survivor benefits in person, online or by phone.
  • Special circumstances (like divorce, disability or remarriage) can affect eligibility and benefits.

Types of Social Security survivor benefits

Survivor benefits are an important aspect of Social Security designed to provide financial assistance to the family members of a deceased worker. There are various types of survivor benefits available, each tailored to different circumstances and family members:

  • Surviving spouse: If you are a surviving spouse, you may be eligible for survivor benefits if you were married to the deceased for at least nine months. You can receive reduced benefits starting at age 60 or full benefits at full retirement age. If you are caring for a minor child under age 16 or a disabled child, you may receive benefits at any age. If you are disabled, you can begin receiving Social Security benefits at age 50.
  • Surviving children: Unmarried children of the deceased may also be eligible for benefits if they are under the age of 18 or up to 19 if they are still in secondary school. Qualifying children who were disabled before age 22 can get benefits at any age. Stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and adopted children may also qualify under certain conditions.
  • Surviving parents: Parents may be eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits if they were financially dependent on the deceased worker and received at least half of their support from the worker. As a surviving dependent parent, you may begin receiving benefits at age 62 or older.

The amount of benefits you receive as any of the survivors mentioned above will depend on the deceased worker’s Social Security lifetime earnings. If you are unsure whether you’re eligible for survivor benefits in one of the above categories, it may be a good idea to contact the Social Security Administration to learn more about your options.

Eligibility criteria for survivor benefits

When it comes to Social Security benefits for surviving family members, two important factors determine eligibility: age, relationship to the deceased and the deceased’s work history.

  • Age and relationship: As we went over in the previous section, what kind of survivor benefits you receive depends on whether you are a surviving spouse, child or parent. Each of these categories has its own age restrictions. To recap, if you are a surviving spouse, you may be able to receive reduced widow or widower benefits as early as age 62 (or age 50 if disabled). Meanwhile, a surviving child of the deceased may qualify until they reach age 18 (or 19 if still in high school). And if you are the parent of the deceased worker and were financially dependent on them, you may be eligible for benefits at age 62 or later.
  • Work history of the deceased: Another key factor that determines benefit eligibility is the deceased worker’s work history. The amount of benefits you can receive will be based on the deceased’s Social Security record. You may be able to start receiving reduced benefits as early as age 62, but waiting until full retirement age will give you the full retirement benefit.

The rules around Social Security survivor benefits can be complex, and many different scenarios can affect eligibility. For example, if you are divorced but were married to the deceased worker for at least 10 years, you may still be eligible for benefits. Additionally, there are special rules for disabled widows and widowers and children with disabilities. We’ll go over those scenarios more in the coming sections.

Calculating survivor benefits

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to calculating Social Security benefits for survivors. The benefit amount you receive is calculated based on the deceased worker’s earnings record. Generally, the more they contributed to Social Security, the higher the amount you can expect to receive.

According to the Social Security Administration, you can use the following percentages as a guideline for most typical claims:

  • Surviving spouses at full retirement age generally get 100% of the worker’s basic benefit amount. If you are under retirement age but at least age 60, you can expect to get between 71% and 99%.
  • Surviving spouses caring for a child under age 16 generally receive 75% of the worker’s benefit amount. There is no age restriction in this instance.
  • Surviving children generally get 75% of the worker’s benefit amount.

If you meet specific requirements as a surviving spouse or child, you also may be eligible to receive a special lump-sum death payment of $255. This is a one-time death benefit, and you must apply within two years of the date of death to receive it.

The Social Security Administration imposes a limit on the benefits that they can pay to you and other family members. This percentage limit can vary, but it’s generally between 150% to 180% of the deceased worker’s benefit amount. Surviving divorced spouses receiving benefits do not affect benefit rates for other survivors.

For more information, you can refer to the Social Security Administration’s Survivor Benefits guide at ssa.gov.

Applying for survivor benefits

When you lose a loved one, it’s important to apply for survivor benefits as soon as possible. You have a few options — either visit your local Social Security office, call the office or apply for benefits online. Keep in mind that you’ll need to have various documents on hand to complete the application, including your Social Security number, the deceased worker’s Social Security number and any relevant financial records.

The Social Security Administration has various online tools to help you find your local Social Security office. You can also apply for survivor benefits by calling their phone number at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

Special circumstances

Certain situations require special consideration when determining survivor benefits:

  • Divorced surviving spouse: If you were previously married but divorced, you may still be eligible for benefits if you were married to the deceased for at least 10 years. The age limits for surviving divorced spouses are the same as those for surviving spouses. Divorced spouses with children under 16 can claim benefits at any age, but the child must be yours and your former deceased spouse’s natural or legally adopted child.
  • Disabled individuals: Having a disability can impact your eligibility and the amount of benefits you can receive. If you’re disabled and meet specific criteria, you may qualify for survivor benefits as soon as age 50.
  • Remarriage: Getting married again can affect your eligibility for survivor benefits. If you remarry before age 60 (or 50 if you have a disability), you typically won’t qualify for surviving spouse benefits. But if you remarry after reaching age 60, you may still be eligible for benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work. In this instance, if you reach age 62 or older and also qualify for benefits based on your new spouse’s work, you can switch to your new spouse’s survivor benefits if they have a higher amount than your former spouse.

The bottom line

Navigating Social Security survivor benefits can feel overwhelming initially, but you don’t have to do it alone. Before applying for benefits, make sure you understand your options and eligibility criteria. If you need clarification on your eligibility or need help with the application process, feel free to reach out to your local Social Security office or call 1-800-772-1213 for assistance.

This article is for informational purposes only and not legal or financial advice.

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