Understanding Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers “Survivor’s Benefits” for certain individuals, to help reduce the financial impact of a worker’s death on their family.

If you are coping with the loss of a family member, or if you are planning for your family’s future, it is important to understand how these benefits work.

Eligibility for Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

Eligibility for survivor’s benefits is based on the number of credits workers earn over their lifetime. Workers can earn up to four credits a year. These credits are determined by the amount a person earns: in 2020, a worker earns one credit for $1,410 of wages or self-employment income.

The longer a person lives, the more credits they typically earn while working, but the minimum number of credits needed to qualify for survivor’s benefits is 40 credits (or 10 years of work). A worker can also qualify for survivor’s benefits by working for a total of 1.5 years in the three years before their death.

Types of Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

There are two kinds of survivor’s benefits offered by SSA: a one-time lump-sum payment of $255, and an ongoing monthly survivor benefit.

Who Can Receive a One-Time Payment

 The one-time, lump-sum death payment of $255 can be paid to:

  • a surviving spouse if he or she is living with the deceased
  • a surviving spouse living apart from the deceased, but receiving certain Social Security benefits based on the deceased’s working record
  • a dependent child under the age of 18

The lump-sum death benefit is only payable if the deceased worker was considered currently insured. In other words, the deceased worker’s earnings must have been subject to Social Security withholding during six quarters of the full 13-quarter period (three years and three months) before their death.

Who Can Receive an Ongoing Monthly Survivor’s Benefit

The ongoing monthly benefit can be paid to:

  • Current spouses, who have been married to an insured worker for at least 9 months at age 60
  • Current spouses, who have been married to an insured worker for at least 9 months and who have become disabled within 7 years of their spouse’s death at age 50
  • Current spouses, or ex-spouses, who are caring for a child (under age 16) of the deceased, regardless of age
  • Ex-spouses married to insured workers for at least 10 years and age 60 or older, if they have not remarried before age 60
  • Children younger than 18
  • Children younger than 19 and attending elementary or high school on a full-time basis
  • Children who are disabled and became disabled before age 22

Ongoing monthly benefits cannot be paid to:

  • Widows or widowers who remarry before age 60, or age 50 if disabled
  • Married children of the deceased
  • Other family members of the deceased may qualify for survivor’s benefits. Qualifying individuals who are dependent on the deceased for financial support may include:
    • adopted children or stepchildren
    • grandchildren or step-grandchildren
    • parents of the deceased, if they are not entitled to their own equal or greater benefits

Amounts for Monthly Survivor’s Benefits

 Beneficiaries entitled to ongoing monthly payments receive a percentage of the deceased worker’s benefit amount. Here are amounts for the most common beneficiaries:

  • Widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse of retirement age:100%
  • Widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse before retirement age: 5% up to 99%, depending on the age of the beneficiary when benefits begin
  • Disabled widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse, ages 50–59: 71.5%
  • Widow or widower, any age, caring for a child younger than 16: 75%
  • A child younger than 18 (19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or disabled: 75%
  • Dependent parent(s) of the deceased worker, age 62 or older: 82.5% for one surviving parent or 75% to each of two surviving parents

Though multiple family members can qualify for a monthly survivor benefit, the Social Security Administration formula caps the total amount paid to all family members between 150% and 180%.

Retirement Benefits, Pensions, and Survivor’s Benefits

Some widows, widowers, or surviving divorced spouses receive survivor’s benefits, but are also eligible for their own retirement benefits. If you are receiving survivor’s benefits, and you would like to switch to your own retirement benefits, you can do so as young as age 62. Often, widows or widowers begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and switch to an unreduced rate once they reach full retirement age.

However, if you receive a pension based on work not covered by the Social Security Administration, your Social Security Survivor’s Benefits might be impacted.

More Resources

For more information about Social Security Survivors Benefits, check out the following resources.

For more information about estate planning and other financial topics, visit:

https://TriageCancer.org/estateplanning and www.CancerFinances.org.


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