How To Get Social Security Survivor Benefits

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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 4 million widows and widowers receive Social Security survivor benefits on their deceased spouse’s earnings record.

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
Relationship Age Restrictions Other Requirements
Surviving Spouse At least 60 years old or at least 50 years old if disabled and the disability began before or within seven years of death Cannot remarry before attaining the minimum age requirement
Surviving Divorced Spouse At least 60 years old or at least 50 years old if disabled and the disability began before or within seven years of death Must have been married at least 10 years
Mother or Father (Surviving Spouse with Minor Child) No age for parent, but child must be under age 16 None
Surviving Child Under 18
Under 19 and a full-time student in elementary or secondary school
Permanently disabled before age 22 and still disabled
Cannot be married
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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 SSA suggests that you apply promptly because not all benefits are retroactive.

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 mother or father (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 surviving parents who were dependent on the decedent, use Form SSA-7.
  • For $225 lump-sum Social Security death benefit, 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.

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Here’s how Social Security benefits are calculated:

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

Percentages for a surviving divorced spouse would be the same as above. However, if more than one family member receives benefits — a surviving spouse and child and/or parent, for example — benefits are typically limited to between 150% and 180% of what the decedent would have received. If the amount all parties are entitled to exceed the limit, each person’s survivor benefit is reduced proportionately.

Income limits apply to how much each survivor can earn without reducing their benefit. 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 $21,240. In the year you reach full retirement age, benefits are reduced by $1 for every $3 above an income limit of $56,520. Once you reach full retirement age, there’s no limit on how much you can earn and still receive your full benefit.

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