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Survivors Benefits

By: Financial Hotline
Summer 2019 (Vol. 37, No. 2)

Social Security benefits may be available if you are the survivor - the spouse, child, or parent of a worker who dies. That person must have worked long enough under Social Security to qualify for benefits.

A worker can earn up to four credits each year. In 2019, for example, your spouse can earn one credit for each $1,360 of wages or self-employment income. When your spouse has earned $5,440, they have earned their four credits for the year.

The number of credits needed to provide benefits for survivors depends on the worker’s age when they die. No one needs more than 40 credits (10 years of work) to be eligible for any Social Security benefit. But, the younger a person is, the fewer credits they must have for family members to receive survivors benefits.

Benefits can be paid to the worker’s children and the surviving spouse who is caring for the children even if the worker doesn’t have the required number of credits. They can get benefits if the worker has credit for one and one-half years of work (6 credits) in the three years just before their death.

If you need to report a death or apply for benefits, call 1-800- 772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). You can speak to a Social Security representative between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can also visit your local Social Security office. An appointment is not required, but if you call ahead and schedule one, it may reduce the time you spend waiting to speak to someone.

A one-time payment of $255 can be paid to the surviving spouse if he or she was living with the deceased; or, if living apart, was receiving certain Social Security benefits on the deceased’s record.

If there is no surviving spouse, the payment is made to a child who is eligible for benefits on the deceased’s record in the month of death.

If the deceased was receiving Social Security benefits, you must return the benefit received for the month of death and any later months.

For example, if the person died in July, you must return the benefits paid in August. How you return the benefits depends on how the deceased received benefits:

For funds received by direct deposit, contact the bank or other financial institution. Request that any funds received for the month of death or later be returned to Social Security.

Benefits received by check must be returned to Social Security as soon as possible. Do not cash any checks received for the month in which the person dies or later.

Certain family members may be eligible to receive monthly benefits, including:

  • A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if disabled);

  • A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances;

  • A widow or widower at any age who is caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or disabled and receiving benefits on their record;

  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is: Younger than age 18 (or up to age 19 if he or she is a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school); or age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.

Under certain circumstances, the following family members may also be eligible:

  • A stepchild, grandchild, step grandchild, or adopted child; and

  • Parents, age 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support.

Eligible family members may be able to receive survivors benefits beginning the month that the beneficiary died.

If you are the widow or widower of a person who worked long enough under Social Security, you can:

  • Receive full benefits at full retirement age for survivors or reduced benefits as early as age 60.

  • Receive benefits as early as age 50 if you are disabled and the disability started before or within seven years of the worker’s death.

  • Receive survivors benefits at any age, if you have not remarried and you take care of the deceased worker’s child who is under age 16 or is older but disabled and receives benefits on the worker’s record.

If you remarry after you reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), your remarriage will not affect your eligibility for survivors benefits.

A widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse cannot apply online for survivors benefits. You should contact Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 to request an appointment.

If you are also eligible for retirement benefits (but haven’t applied yet), you have an additional option. You can apply for retirement or survivors benefits now and switch to the other (higher) benefit at a later date.

For those already receiving retirement benefits, you can only apply for benefits as a widow or widower if the retirement benefit you receive is less than the benefits you would receive as a survivor.

If you became entitled to retirement benefits less than 12 months ago, you may be able to withdraw your retirement application and apply for survivors benefits only. If you do that, you can reapply for the retirement benefits at a later date when they will be higher.

If you are the divorced spouse of a worker who dies, you could get benefits the same as a widow or widower, provided that your marriage lasted 10 years or more. If you remarry after you reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), the remarriage will not affect your eligibility for survivors benefits.

If you are caring for a child under age 16 or disabled and gets benefits on the record of your former spouse, you would not have to meet the length-of-marriage rule. The child must be your former spouse’s natural or legally adopted child.

If you are the unmarried child under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) of a worker who dies, you can be eligible to receive Social Security survivors benefits.

And you can get benefits at any age if you were disabled before age 22 and remain disabled.

Besides the worker’s natural children, their stepchildren, grandchildren, or adopted children may receive benefits under certain circumstances.

If you are the dependent parent, who is at least age 62, of a worker who dies, you may also be eligible for benefits.

You must have been receiving at least half of your support from your working child and you must not be eligible to receive a retirement benefit that is higher than the benefit we could pay on your child’s record. Generally, you must not have married after your deceased adult child’s death; however, there are some exceptions. You could also be the stepparent, or the adoptive parent if you became the deceased worker’s parent before he or she was age 16.

Your survivors benefit amount is based on the earnings of the person who died. The more they paid into Social Security, the higher your benefits would be. The monthly amount you would get is a percentage of the deceased’s basic Social Security benefit. It depends on your age and the type of benefit you are eligible to receive.

These are examples of the benefits that survivors may receive:

  • Widow or widower, full retirement age or older — 100 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit amount;

  • Widow or widower, age 60 — full retirement age — 71.5 to 99 percent of the deceased worker’s basic amount;

  • Disabled widow or widower aged 50 through 59 — 71.5 percent;

  • Widow or widower, any age, caring for a child under age 16 — 75 percent;

  • A child under age 18 (19 if still in school) or disabled — 75 percent; and

  • Dependent parent(s) of the deceased worker, age 62 or older: One surviving parent — 82.5 percent.

  • Two surviving parents — 75 percent to each parent.

(Percentages for a surviving divorced spouse would be the same as above.)