Social Security Survivor Benefits: The Most Important Things You Need To Know

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While you may know that the deduction for Social Security taxes on your pay stub funds Social Security benefits for the current generation of retirees, that money serves another purpose, too — benefits for survivors. When someone passes away who worked long enough to earn Social Security benefits, their spouse, children or parents could be eligible for a survivor’s portion of the benefits. Here’s what you need to know.

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Who Is Eligible To Receive Social Security Survivor’s Benefits?

According to the Social Security Administration, these people may be eligible to receive survivor’s benefits:

  • Surviving spouse age 60 and up (or age 50 and up if disabled)
  • Surviving divorced spouse (certain circumstances apply)
  • Surviving spouse of any age who is caring for the deceased’s child who is younger than 16 or disabled and receiving child’s benefits
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is either younger than 18 (or up to 19 if a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school) or 18 or older with a disability that began prior to age 22

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    Under certain circumstances, the following people may also be eligible for survivor’s benefits:

    • Stepchild, grandchild, step-grandchild or adopted child
    • Parents, 62 and older, who received at least half their support from the deceased

    How Do Social Security Survivor’s Benefits Work?

    There are many facts and figures that apply when trying to understand how Social Security Survivor’s benefits work, and you can find out more by visiting the Social Security Administration website to fill in the gaps. To grasp the highlights of how these benefits work for survivors, however, here’s commentary from Tracy L. Sherwood, CFP, president of Sherwood Financial Management and Jeremy Keil, CFP with Keil Financial Partners.

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    Can You Collect on a Survivor’s Benefit If You’re Still Working?

    “Widows, widowers and surviving ex-spouses can collect survivor benefits as early as age 60 but are subject to benefit reductions and earnings restrictions if they continue to work,” Sherwood said. Keil pointed out that these earnings restrictions and benefit reductions apply if you’re under full retirement age and earning more than $18,960 per year. 

    Does Divorce Affect Social Security Survivor’s Benefits?

    “Ex-spouses who were married at least 10 years before divorcing may be able to collect survivor benefits up to 100% of their benefit amount even if the ex [was] remarried,” Sherwood said. 

    More Info: Next Year’s Social Security Checks Could Get Biggest COLA Bump in 13 Years

    Does Remarrying Affect Social Security Survivor’s Benefits?

    “If they wait until 60 or later to remarry, they can collect survivor benefits even if married to someone else,” Sherwood said.

    Can a Survivor Collect Their Benefit and Their Deceased Spouse’s Benefit at the Same Time?

    Unfortunately, the short answer is no. “But make sure you run the numbers because it may benefit you to file for the survivor benefit at age 60, and wait on your own [Social Security benefits] until age 70 or you may be better off filing your own at age 62, and then switching to the survivor benefit at full retirement age,” Keil said. To find out which filing option would be better for you, Keil recommends consulting with an advisor who has completed the National Social Security Advisor Certificate Program as he has. You can search for an advisor with that specific certification here

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    Can Waiting To Collect a Social Security Survivor’s Benefit Increase It?

    “Yes, but the maximum survivor benefit you could get would be at your full retirement age, whatever that is, likely between 66-67,” Keil said. 

    Find Out: The First Thing You Should Do With Your Social Security Check

    How Do You Apply for Social Security Survivor’s Benefits?

    Only two options exist to apply for Social Security Survivor’s benefits, and applying online is not one of them.

    You can call 800-772-1213 for assistance or you can visit a Social Security office near you to apply for these benefits. However, due to the coronavirus, walk-in services have not been resumed at the time of this writing, but in-person appointments may be possible.

    Here is a list of forms you may need to provide when applying for survivor’s benefits, according to the Social Security Administration:

    • Proof of death
    • Birth certificate or other proof of birth
    • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status
    • U.S. military discharge paper(s) for those who served in the military before 1968
    • W-2s or self-employment tax returns for the previous year
    • Final divorce decree, if applicable
    • Marriage certificate

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      Last updated: July 20, 2021

      About the Author

      Cynthia Measom is a personal finance writer and editor with over 12 years of collective experience. Her articles have been featured in MSN, Aol, Yahoo Finance, INSIDER, Houston Chronicle, The Seattle Times and The Network Journal. She attended the University of Texas at Austin and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

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