How to Get Social Security Survivor Benefits

Here's how Social Security survivor benefits are calculated and how you can claim them.

Many people think of Social Security benefits as income in retirement. However, there are also Social Security widow benefits and Social Security death benefits for children. If you’re eligible, you won’t be alone: According to the Social Security Administration, about 5 million widows and widowers receive Social Security survivor benefits.

When claiming Social Security benefits you’re typically required to have at least 40 credits; however, surviving spouses and children can receive benefits if the decedent has earned at least six credits — equating to one and a half years of work — in the three years prior to death. Here’s what you need to know about Social Security benefits for surviving family members.

Eligibility for Death Benefits

The eligibility requirements for survivors to receive death benefits from Social Security depends on the relationship to the decedent. Here’s a quick guide so you can understand eligibility:

Social Security Survivor Benefits Eligibility
RelationshipAge RestrictionsOther Requirements
Surviving SpouseAt least 60 years old or at least 50 years old if disabled and the disability began before or within seven years of deathCannot remarry before attaining the minimum age requirement
Surviving Divorced SpouseAt least 60 years old or at least 50 years old if disabled and the disability began before or within seven years of deathMust have been married at least 10 years
Surviving Spouse with Minor ChildNo age for parent, but child must be under age 16None
Surviving ChildUnder 18
Under 19 and a full-time student in elementary or secondary school
Permanently disabled before age 22 and still disabled
Cannot be married

Learn: 5 Social Security Changes to Watch for in 2017

Applying for Survivor Benefits

The first step to applying for survivor’s benefits is to contact Social Security to report the death. Typically, the funeral home will handle this if you give them the decedent’s Social Security number. If you need to report the death yourself, the Social Security contact number is 800-772-1213. You cannot report a death online.

After reporting the death, if you’re already receiving benefits based on the decedent’s record, the Social Security Administration will update the benefits you receive accordingly. But if you’re currently receiving benefits on your own record or you aren’t receiving benefits at all, you’ll need to complete an application for survivor benefits.

The form you’re required to complete depends on your relationship to the decedent:

  • For a surviving spouse, or a divorced surviving spouse, file Form SSA-10.
  • For a surviving spouse applying for benefits because you are taking care of the decedent’s child, file Form SSA-5.
  • For a surviving child, use Form SSA-4.
  • For Social Security death benefits, use Form SSA-8.

If you don’t have all the required information, you should still apply. The Social Security Administration might be able to help obtain the required documents.

Calculating Benefits

As a surviving spouse or child, you might be entitled to a Social Security death benefit of $255 upon your spouse’s or parent’s death. So what is the maximum Social Security benefit? The amount of the ongoing monthly payments depends on the maximum Social Security benefit the decedent would have received.

Here’s how Social Security benefits are calculated:

  • Surviving spouse who has reached full retirement age: 100 percent of decedent’s benefit
  • Surviving spouse age 60 to full retirement age: 71.5 to 99 percent of decedent’s benefit
  • Disabled surviving spouse age 50 through 59: 71.5 percent of decedent’s benefit
  • Surviving spouse caring for a child under 16: 75 percent of decedent’s benefit
  • Child under 18 (or 19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or disabled: 75 percent of decedent’s benefit

Percentages for a surviving divorced spouse would be the same as above. However, if both a surviving spouse and a surviving child are receiving benefits, there’s a limit to the total benefits paid — typically between 150 and 180 percent of what the decedent would have received. If the amount all parties are entitled to exceeds the limit, each person’s survivor benefit is reduced proportionately.

Income limits apply to how much each survivor can make without reducing their benefit amount. If you’re younger than full retirement age, your maximum Social Security benefit is reduced by $1 for every $2 you make in excess of $16,920. In the year you reach full retirement age, benefits are reduced by $1 for every $3 above an income limit of $44,880. Once you reach full retirement age, there’s no limit on how much you can earn and still receive benefits.

Learn: How to Maximize Your Social Security Income