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Social Security Survivor Benefits - What You Need to Know

It is important to understand the scope and impact of Social Security Survivor Benefits, should you and/or your child ever need to use them. Read more here.

Most people are somewhat familiar with social security -- it’s a federal program providing financial support to retirement-age Americans. However, what most people don’t know is that the scope of these benefits goes beyond supplemental retirement income. There are several lesser known aspects of this spending program, such as social security survivor benefits, that can be helpful to understand. 

Social security survivor benefits provide financial assistance to widows, widowers, and their dependent children. Unfortunately, many people are unfamiliar with the eligibility requirements and enrollment process. While you may never have to use this information, it can be beneficial to learn more about social security survivor benefits and how to apply if you ever need it. Keep reading to learn more: 

What Are “Social Security Survivor Benefits”?

Social security survivor benefits are a type of financial support available to the family members of a deceased social security beneficiary. Many people think of social security as a source of retirement income, but this program also helps widows, widowers, dependent parents, and children. Survivor benefits are available through regular payments, often referred to as credits, and a one-time payment after the death of the beneficiary. 

The survivor benefits of social security were added in 1939 as a way to increase the support available to the spouses and children of retirees. Now a surviving spouse can receive up to 100 percent of their deceased spouse’s social security benefits (if they have reached full retirement age). The exact amount of financial support will vary based on a few factors such as age, number of children, lifetime earnings, disability status, and more. 

How Social Security Survivor Benefits Work

It can be helpful to look at the social security program as a whole to better understand how survivor benefits work. As you earn money and pay taxes, you are gradually contributing to social security. Assuming you work for at least 10 years, these benefits will be available to you once you reach retirement age -- which is currently 67. At that point, social security will kick in as a percentage of your average pre-retirement income. 

Many people do not realize that by contributing to social security, they are also adding funds that support survivor benefits. If you receive social security, your spouse and dependent children can apply to collect your benefits after your death. To continue receiving benefits, your family members may need to reach out to an official social security office. 

Who is Eligible for Survivor Benefits From Social Security? 

There are a few different eligibility requirements when looking at who qualifies for social security survivor benefits. Typically, widows or widowers who are at least 60 years old are eligible as long as they were married to the beneficiary for at least nine months. If the deceased was receiving social security benefits before they died, their widow or widower will often automatically begin receiving survivor benefits (after the social security office is notified of the death). 

There are a few exceptions to make note of when looking at who qualifies. For example, widows or widowers with dependent children may be eligible for survivor benefits regardless of age. Widows or widowers can also be eligible if they are disabled and the disability occurred within seven years of the spouse’s death. A final exception to note is that the marriage length requirement is typically not applied if the beneficiary’s death was accidental or occurred in military duty. 

When Your Spouse Dies Do You Get Their Social Security?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will typically initiate survivor benefits after they are notified of the death of the beneficiary -- assuming the widow or widower meets the eligibility requirements listed above. Typically, funeral homes will notify the social security office of the death to begin this process. At that point, your monthly benefits will change to include survivor benefits and a lump-sum death payment (if applicable). 

If you are not currently enrolled in social security or spousal benefits, you may need to reach out to your local social security office to begin the application process. You will need to provide several identifying documents such as an official death certificate, marriage certificate, W-2 forms from the previous year, proof of citizenship, and more. The exact paperwork will depend on the type of survivor benefits you are applying for. The application process can be intimidating, but know that survivor benefits can be applied retroactively. 

The amount of survivor benefits you are eligible for is calculated using the social security your spouse was receiving at the time they died. If you are retirement age and are applying for survivor benefits, you may be eligible for 100 percent of your spouse’s benefits. Widows or widowers applying between age 60 and 67 may be eligible for 71.5 and 99 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefits. Finally, those who are applying for benefits with dependent children (and are not approaching retirement age) may be eligible for up to 75 percent of their spouse’s benefits. 

What is the Difference Between Spousal Benefits and Survivor Benefits?

The main difference between spousal benefits and survivor benefits is when they are applied. Spousal benefits can be claimed while your spouse is still alive and are determined as a portion of their current social security benefit. Survivor benefits only apply once the social security beneficiary is deceased. Spousal benefits are also typically much lower when compared to survivor benefits; spousal benefits can be a maximum of 50 percent of the beneficiary’s social security. 

While they are commonly mistaken for one another, these benefits have different eligibility requirements and are used at different times. The marriage requirement for spousal benefits is 12 months, instead of the 9 month requirement associated with survivor benefits. That being said, one interesting similarity is that you may be eligible for spousal or survivor benefits once divorced as long as you were married for at least 10 years and are currently unmarried. 

Social Security Survivor Benefits for Children

There is no age requirement when applying for social security survivor benefits for children after a parent has died. Survivor benefits may be available to children (biological and adopted), step children, dependents with disabilities, and grandchildren depending on the circumstances. The main requirement is that the deceased parent worked for at least one and a half years during the three years before their death.  

Social security pays more benefits to children than any other government program. It may come as a surprise, but the SSA provides more financial support to children than any other federal spending program. 

Children can receive up to 75 percent of their deceased parent’s social security benefits. Children’s benefits will be calculated based on the benefit amount the deceased parent was receiving at the time of their death.

There is a family maximum that could impact your benefits. There is an overall family maximum between 150 and 180 percent of the deceased person’s social security benefit that could impact each family member's benefits. 

A social security survivor benefits child can expect to receive financial support until they turn 18, or 19 if they are enrolled in school full time. The SSA also requires children to be unmarried to receive survivor benefits. There is an exception for children with disabilities who may continue to be eligible as long as their disability began before age 22. 

What Can You Spend Social Security Child Survivor Benefits On? 

The parent or legal guardian who is managing survivor benefits on behalf of a child will be required to prove how this money is spent. The SSA will require an annual report, though they can request this information at any point in time. You can spend social security child survivor benefits a few different ways:

  • Basic needs such as food, water, and housing

  • Medical costs including the child’s portion of a deductible or insurance payment

  • Recreational activities, for example if the child is enrolled in sports

  • New clothes and other miscellaneous items related to their care 

Social Security Survivor Benefits: Bottom Line 

Social security survivor benefits can provide much needed financial support after the death of a spouse. However much like social security, survivor benefits are not intended to replace your entire income. These benefits should be thought of as supplemental, as they will likely be too small to cover all of your expenses. So, how should you and your spouse approach your future finances? 

One of the best ways to create a sense of security for your family is by creating an Estate Plan. This will allow you to document your finances and plan ahead for the future. For example, many couples explore life insurance as a way to secure additional financial support to their spouses. There are several ways to approach this process -- but remember to think about how you can best set up your loved ones for success as you get older. 

It is always a good idea to learn more about the financial support that will be available to you and your spouse once you approach retirement. While social security is a well-known federal spending program, many people are unaware of its depth. Consider how social security survivor benefits could help you or a family member after the loss of a spouse. This is just one of several things to think about as you create an Estate Plan. Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Reach out to us today or Chat with a live member support representative!