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How Social Security Survivor Benefits For Spouses Work | Full Guide

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Many people know about Social Security spousal benefits, and many receive benefits based on their spouse’s work history. Some couples rely on both of these monthly payments to meet their financial obligations. So, what happens when the primary beneficiary dies? The surviving spouse might qualify for survivor benefits, and the benefit amount can be as much as 100% of the amount the deceased spouse was receiving. Children, grandchildren, or parents can qualify for survivor benefits in some cases. Keep reading as we tell you how Social Security survivor benefits work for spouses, including who is eligible, how to apply, and how much you can expect to receive.


What Are Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Social Security survivor benefits are paid to a surviving dependent of a Social Security benefit recipient. A surviving dependent may be a spouse, child, grandchild, parent, or even an ex-spouse. If the deceased was receiving regular retirement benefits or disability benefits, then these survivor benefits may be available to eligible family members. Most commonly, these benefits apply to a widow or widower of a deceased spouse who was receiving Social Security retirement benefits. In some cases, a surviving divorced spouse might be eligible to receive benefits as well.

The Federal government realized that many couples and families often depended on Social Security benefits to survive. Similarly, many couples relied on the work record of one spouse for their benefits. Perhaps the other spouse did not work or did not work long enough to pay the appropriate amount of Social Security taxes to qualify for their own benefits. In that case, when the primary beneficiary died, the surviving spouse might be left in severe financial hardship. Using survivor benefits to allow the surviving spouse to receive up to 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefits helps to alleviate that problem.

When it comes to children or grandchildren, there could be multiple dependents who are eligible to receive benefits. However, you should know that there is a maximum family amount that one family can receive when it comes to Social Security family benefits. For example, each child might be entitled to 75% of the deceased’s benefit amount. If five children are eligible, that will lead to a reasonably large payment. In most cases, the family maximum is capped at 125% to 175% of the benefit amount of the deceased.


Who Is Eligible For Social Security Survivor Benefits?

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A dependent of the deceased may be eligible to receive survivor benefits. When you hear the word dependent, you often think of a child. However, when it comes to these benefits, a dependent might include many different people. Here are the different types of dependents who can be eligible to receive these benefits.

  • A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 if they are disabled) provided that they have not remarried
  • A widow or widower at any age who is caring for the child (under age 16 or disabled) of the deceased
  • A child of the deceased who is under 18 (19 if enrolled as a full-time student in elementary or secondary school)
  • A child age 18 or older who is disabled, as long as the disability began before age 22
  • A stepchild, adopted child, grandchild, or step-grandchild of the deceased in some cases
  • A dependent parent of the deceased who is age 62 or older and was dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support
  • A surviving divorced spouse in some cases

As with many government programs, the eligibility rules can often be confusing. While the basics are listed above, there are sometimes additional requirements that might apply. This can be especially true when it comes to former spouses. In that case, the marriage must have lasted at least ten years, and the former spouse must not be remarried unless the remarriage occurred after age 60. Deciding to remarry before age 60 will exclude a former spouse from receiving survivor benefits in most cases.


Applying For Social Security Survivor Benefits

Applying for survivor benefits is not difficult, and in a few cases, an application is not even necessary. First, the Social Security Administration will need to be notified of the death. Most of the time, the local authorities or funeral home will handle the notification to the SSA. However, if you want to speed up the process, you may call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). At this time, you cannot report a death online.

If you are already receiving spousal benefits, then your benefit should be automatically switched to survivor benefits. There should be nothing else that you need to do, and a separate application for survivor benefits should not be necessary. In some cases, you might even be eligible for a lump-sum death benefit payment as well. However, if you are not currently receiving benefits, then you will need to complete an application to start your benefit payments.

Currently, applications for survivor benefits cannot be completed online. This is due to the complexity of these benefits, as each application is unique. To start your application, you will need to call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). You may complete the application over the phone or make an appointment at your local Social Security office. Remember that appointments are required at your local office because no walk-ins are being accepted during the COVID pandemic.

As part of the application process, you will likely need to present some documentation that proves your eligibility. You should go ahead and get these documents ready before starting your application, if possible. More than likely, you will need a marriage certificate, death certificate, identification, divorce decree (if applicable), birth certificate, proof of citizenship, your Social Security card or number, and the deceased’s Social Security number. You will likely also need your direct deposit information as part of the application process so that your benefit payments can be deposited into your bank account. Once you have all this information together, go ahead and call the Social Security Administration to get your application started.


How Are Social Security Survivor Benefits Calculated?

There are a few different factors that are used to calculate survivor benefits. The biggest factor is the deceased’s benefit amount. This amount is calculated based on the AIME, or average indexed monthly earnings, over the course of the deceased’s lifetime. The more money that the person earns over their lifetime, the higher the monthly benefit will be. The higher the amount that the deceased worker received or would have received at retirement age, the higher the amount of the survivor benefits.

In some cases, the deceased may not have been receiving benefits yet. This is often the case when calculating a child’s benefit. In that case, the calculation is performed using a future estimate of benefits. The SSA will estimate the benefit amount that the deceased would have received at full retirement age. The survivor benefits will then be calculated using this amount.

If the deceased started their Social Security benefits early, then that would reduce their monthly payments. This reduction not only affects their benefit payments for the rest of their life but also affects the amount of any survivor benefits that are due upon their death. Any survivor benefits that are payable would be calculated using the reduced benefit amount and not their full benefit had they waited until normal retirement age.


How Much Survivor Benefits Can You Receive?

The amount of benefits that a survivor can receive varies based on the specifics of their situation. A current spouse can receive up to 100% of the deceased’s benefits as long as they have already reached full retirement age. They might also be eligible for a death payment of $255 upon the death of their spouse. So, this means that a widow or widower’s benefit could be the same amount that the deceased was receiving. If the surviving spouse is between age 60 and full retirement age, then they will be entitled to a benefit ranging from 71.5% to 99% of the deceased’s benefit amount. If that widow or widower is disabled, then they can receive 71.5% of the benefit from age 50 to 59. A surviving spouse caring for a child of the deceased can receive 75% of the deceased’s benefit regardless of the age of the surviving spouse.

An ex-spouse is entitled to the same benefit amounts as a surviving spouse, provided they meet the other eligibility requirements for ex-spouses. Remember that the marriage must have lasted at least ten years, and the ex-spouse must not be remarried before age 60.

When it comes to children, they typically are entitled to 75% of the deceased parent’s benefit amount. Remember that there is also a family maximum. So, if the deceased had multiple children, each one might not receive the full 75%. In most cases, the family maximum ranges from 125% to 175% of the deceased’s benefit. Dependent parents can qualify for up to 82.5% of the deceased’s benefit. If both parents qualify as dependents, then each will receive 75%.


The Best Time To Claim A Survivor’s Benefit

The best time to claim your survivor’s benefit depends on your personal finances and how long you might be able to go without receiving the benefits. There are many variables that can affect the timing and amount of benefits for which you might be eligible. We will discuss options in the next section to maximize your survivor benefits, but as a general rule, it is often best to wait as long as possible to start your benefits.

The earlier you start your survivor benefits, the lower the payment amount will be. Even though you can start survivor benefits as a surviving spouse at age 60, the monthly payment will be higher if you wait until the normal retirement age — age 67 in most cases. If you have minor children, then there are other considerations that come into play.

You should be aware of what some people refer to as the Social Security blackout period. This is the period of time for which no one in the family is eligible for survivor benefits. Consider the following example. Suppose a surviving spouse is 40 years old with a child who is 12. Both the spouse and child would be eligible for survivor benefits in that case. However, when the child turns 18, those benefits would end. At that point, the spouse would be 46 years old and would not be eligible for surviving spouse benefits again until age 60. So, there would be a 14-year blackout period during which no survivor benefits would be received. Many families turn to life insurance or other death benefits to help bridge that gap and care for their family from a financial standpoint.


How To Maximize Your Survivor’s Benefit

So, how do you get the most out of your survivor’s benefit? We hinted in the last section that waiting as long as possible to start your benefits is one strategy to getting the most possible. There are also a few other details that you need to consider to maximize your spousal benefits and survivor benefits. If you are eligible for benefits based on your own record of work, then you have a few options.

First, you cannot receive benefits from your own record and as a surviving spouse at the same time. However, you can receive both benefits over the course of your lifetime. If you are eligible and apply for both benefits, then the Social Security Administration will automatically give you the higher amount of the two. This means that if your survivor benefit is higher than your own retirement benefit, then you will receive the survivor benefit instead of your benefits based on your own earnings record.

To maximize your benefits, you need to determine how much each of those benefits would be and take the benefits in the order that works out best for you. If your survivor benefit is much smaller than your own benefit, then it might make the most sense to start that benefit at age 60 and then switch to your own benefit at full retirement age. On the other hand, it might make more sense to use your own benefit first and switch to your survivor benefit later if the survivor benefit is higher than your own.

Deciding when to start your benefits and in which order to use them often requires some professional help. You should consider using a financial planner to help you decide when to start your benefits and in which order to use them. Remember that you might also need to account for the costs of Medicare when determining your monthly budget and benefit payments.


The Bottom Line

Survivor benefits play a crucial role for many couples and families across America. These benefits provide payments to surviving family members of Social Security benefit recipients. These benefits may extend to surviving spouses, children, grandchildren, and even parents and ex-spouses. The rules for surviving spouse benefits are fairly straightforward, and you will generally qualify after reaching age 60. There are a few special exceptions that might allow you to qualify sooner, like if you are caring for a child of the deceased or if you have a disability. To apply, you will need to call the Social Security Administration as online applications for survivor benefits are not possible at this time.


Frequently Asked Questions


When can a widow collect her husband’s Social Security?

A widow can generally collect her husband’s Social Security upon reaching age 60. The husband must have worked for at least ten years in most cases, although there are some exceptions for younger individuals with minor children. If the widow is already receiving spousal benefits from her husband’s Social Security, then those benefits will be automatically switched over to survivor benefits once the Social Security Administration is notified of the death.


What is the difference between spousal benefits and survivor benefits?

Spousal benefits are received while both spouses are still alive. This often happens when one spouse is the primary earner and the other does not have a significant earnings history. In that case, you can receive spousal benefits based on your spouse’s earnings record. The maximum benefit is 50% of the primary insurance amount. However, when a spouse dies, the widow or widower can then receive survivor benefits. This benefit can be up to 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit amount.


When does a widow stop being eligible for survivor benefits?

There is no age limit to receiving survivor benefits. If the surviving spouse is age 60 or older, then they will continue to receive those benefits for life. However, if the surviving spouse is younger than 60 and gets remarried, then they will no longer be eligible to receive survivor benefits from their previous spouse’s earnings record. Similarly, a younger spouse who receives benefits while caring for a child of the deceased will stop receiving benefits when the child turns 18. That same spouse can restart survivor benefits when they reach age 60, provided that they have not remarried.


What are the requirements for a surviving spouse to receive Social Security survivor benefits?

A surviving spouse needs to be age 60 or older and not remarried. The marriage to the deceased spouse also must have lasted for at least ten years before the death of the spouse. A surviving spouse can be eligible for benefits at age 50 if he or she is disabled. Finally, the deceased spouse must have worked at least ten years (or have enough work credits) to qualify for Social Security benefits.


What is the age limit for a widow to collect survivor benefits?

To start benefits, the widow needs to be 60 or older. If the widow is disabled, then she can start benefits at age 50. Once benefits have begun, there is no age limit to receiving the benefits. She will continue to receive them for life, just like regular Social Security retirement benefits. There is one exception. If the widow is younger and caring for the deceased’s child, then her payments will stop when the child turns 18. Assuming she does not remarry, she can start her survivor benefits again when she reaches age 60.