Survivors Benefits

What A Worker Needs To Know About Survivors Benefits

"Life Insurance" From Social Security

Many people think of Social Security as a retirement program. But, retirement benefits are just one part of the Social Security program. Some of the Social Security taxes you pay go toward survivors insurance. In fact, the value of the survivors insurance you have under Social Security is probably more than the value of your individual life insurance.

When someone dies who has worked and paid into Social Security, survivors benefits can be paid to certain family members. These include widows/widowers (and divorced widows/widowers), children, and dependent parents.

You, along with millions of other people, earn survivors insurance by working and paying Social Security taxes. Right now, 98 out of every 100 children could get benefits if a working parent should die. In fact, Social Security pays more benefits to children than any other federal program.

How You Earn Survivors Benefits

When you die, certain members of your family may be eligible for survivors benefits if you worked, paid Social Security taxes, and earned enough "credits." You can earn a maximum of four credits each year. The number of credits you need depends on your age of death. The younger you are, the fewer credits you need for family members to be eligible for survivors benefits. But, 40 credits always are enough (10 years of work) for one to be eligible for any Social Security benefits.

Under a special rule, benefits can be paid to your children and your spouse who is caring for your children, even if you do not have the number of credits required. They can receive benefits if you have credit for one and a half years of work in the three years prior to your death.

Who Can Get Survivors Benefits?

When you die, Social Security survivors benefits can be paid to the following people:

  • Your widow/widower - full benefits at 65 or older (if born before 1940) or reduced benefits as early as age 60. NOTE: The age for receiving full benefits gradually increases for persons born after 1939 until it reaches age 67 for persons born in 1962 and later. A disabled widow/widower can receive benefits at 50-60 years old. The surviving spouse's benefits may be reduced if s/he also receives a pension from a job in which Social Security taxes were not withheld.
  • Your widow/widower at any age if s/he is taking care of your child under the age of 16 or your disabled child who receives benefits
  • Unmarried children under 18 (or up to age 19 if they attend elementary or secondary school full time). Your child can get benefits at any age if s/he was disabled before age 22 and remained disabled. Under certain circumstances, benefits also can be paid to your stepchildren, grandchildren, or adopted children.
  • Dependent parents at age 62 or older.

Special One-Time Death Benefit

A special one-time payment of $255 can be made upon your death if you have enough work "credits." This payment can be made only to your spouse or minor children if they meet certain requirements.

Benefits For Surviving Divorced Spouses

If you have been divorced and had been married for at least ten years, your former spouse can get benefits under the same circumstances as your widow/widower. Your former spouse, however, does not have to meet the length-of-marriage rule if s/he is taking care of your child under the age of 16 or your disabled child who receives benefits. The child must be your former spouse's biological or legally adopted child.

Benefits paid to a surviving divorced spouse who is at least 60 years old (50-60 if disabled) will not affect the benefit rates for other survivors receiving benefits.

How Much Are Benefits?

How much your family can get from Social Security depends on your average lifetime earnings. The higher your earnings are, the higher the benefits will be.

What A Survivor Needs To Know About Survivors Benefits

How Do I Apply For Benefits?

How you sign up for survivors benefits depends on whether or not you are receiving other Social Security benefits.

If You Are Not Receiving Social Security Benefits

You should apply for survivors benefits promptly because, in some cases, benefits may not be retroactive.

The Social Security Administration will need certain information to process your application. It is helpful to have it when you apply, but do not delay applying if you do not have everything; the Social Security Administration will help you get it. The Social Security Administration will need either original documents or copies certified by the agency that issued them.

The information needed includes:

  • proof of death-either from funeral home or death certificate
  • your Social Security number, as well as the worker's
  • your birth certificate
  • your marriage certificate if you are a widow or widower
  • your divorce papers if you are applying as a surviving divorced spouse
  • dependent children's Social Security numbers and birth certificates
  • deceased worker's W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year
  • the name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be directly deposited into your account

If You're Already Getting Social Security Benefits

If you are getting benefits as a wife or husband on your spouse's record when s/he dies, you should report the death the Social Security Administration, and it will change your payments to survivors benefits. If the Social Security Administration needs more information, they will contact you.

If you are getting benefits on your own record, you will need to complete an application to receive survivors benefits. Call or visit the Social Security Administration, and it will check to see if you can collect more money as a widow or widower. It will need to see your spouse's death certificate to process your claim.

Benefits for any children will automatically be changed to survivors benefits after the death is reported to the Social Security Administration, which will contact you if it needs more information.

How Much Will I Get?

The amount of your benefit is based on the earnings of the person who died. The more s/he paid into Social Security, the higher your benefits will be. The amount you will get is a percentage of the deceased's basic Social Security benefit. The percentage depends on your age and the type of benefit for which you are eligible.

Here are the most typical situations:

  • widow or widower, age 65 or older - 100 percent
  • widow or widower age, 60-64 - about 71-94 percent
  • widow, any age, with a child under age 16 - 75 percent
  • children - 75 percent

What Are The Maximum Family Benefits?

There is a limit to the amount of money that can be paid to you and other family members each month. The limit varies, but is generally equal to about 150 to 180 percent of the deceased's benefit rate. If the sum of the benefits payable to the family members is greater than this limit, the benefits will be reduced proportionately.

What Are Retirement Benefits For Widows/Widowers?

If you are receiving widows/widowers (including divorced widows/widowers) benefits, remember that you can switch to your own retirement benefit as early as age 62. This assumes that you are eligible and your retirement rate is higher than your widow's/widower's rate. In many cases, a widow/widower can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate at age 65.

What If I Work?

If you work while getting Social Security survivors benefits and are under full retirement age (65 for people born before 1938 and gradually increasing to 67 for people born in 1960 or later), the amount of your benefits may be reduced if your earnings exceed certain limits. To find out what the limits are this year and how earnings above those limits reduce your Social Security benefits, contact the Social Security Administration.

Your earnings will reduce only your survivors benefits, not the benefits of other family members.

What If I Remarry?

Generally, you cannot get survivors benefits if you remarry. But, remarriage after age 60 (50 if disabled) will not prevent benefit payments on your former spouse's record. Furthermore, at age 62 or older, you may get benefits on the record of your new spouse if they are higher.