Social Security benefits can help provide a stream of income for retirement or if someone becomes disabled and can no longer work. A Social Security beneficiary is someone who receives Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. When a beneficiary passes away, there are certain steps that must be taken to cancel benefits or transfer the payments to an eligible survivor. 

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security beneficiaries can receive payments from Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
  • When a Social Security beneficiary dies, the death must be reported to the Social Security Administration.
  • Eligible relatives and family members can receive Social Security survivor benefits after a beneficiary passes away. 
  • The amount of survivor benefits that can be paid depends on the survivor’s relationship to the deceased beneficiary. 

Reporting the Death of a Social Security Beneficiary

When a Social Security beneficiary passes away, the Social Security Administration can continue sending out their regular monthly benefits until the death is reported. So, for example, if you share a bank account with your spouse and they die, their Social Security benefits may continue to be automatically deposited into your shared account until the SSA is notified. 

Oftentimes the funeral home that handles a deceased Social Security beneficiary’s arrangements will notify Social Security that the person has passed away. If it doesn’t, however, you can notify the Social Security Administration yourself by calling 800-772-1213 or visiting your nearest Social Security office if it’s open for business (as of Nov. 10, 2020, all offices are still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Important

Social Security beneficiary deaths cannot be reported online.

Failing to report the death of a Social Security beneficiary can be problematic for a couple of reasons. First, any payments you receive from Social Security after the beneficiary passes away will have to be returned. Continuing to collect benefits after someone dies—even if that person was a spouse and the benefits are going into a joint account—is a federal crime that’s punishable by imprisonment and/or fines. Second, failing to report the death of a Social Security beneficiary could cause you to miss out on collecting Social Security survivor benefits

What Are Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Social Security survivor benefits are payments that are made to eligible survivors of a deceased beneficiary. 

Eligible survivors include: 

  • Widows and widowers age 60 or older (50 or older if disabled)
  • Surviving divorced spouses (under certain circumstances)
  • Widows and widowers of any age who are caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or disabled
  • Unmarried children of the deceased who are under 18, or are 18 or over and disabled
  • Stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, and adopted children
  • Parents aged 62 or older who were depending on the deceased for at least half their support

These payments can be made on a monthly basis with amounts based on the benefits the deceased beneficiary was receiving and their relationship to the survivor. Here’s an overview of how survivor benefit amounts compare:

  • Widows and widowers who are full retirement age or older may receive 100% of the deceased beneficiary’s benefit amount.
  • Widows and widowers age 60 up to full retirement age can receive 71.5% to 99% of the deceased beneficiary’s amount.
  • Disabled widows and widowers age 50 to 59 can receive 71.5% of the benefit amount.
  • Widows and widowers caring for a child under 16 can receive 75% of the benefit amount.
  • Children under age 18 (or 19, if still in secondary school) or disabled can receive 75% of the benefit amount.
  • Dependent parents aged 62 or older can receive 75% of the benefit amount each or 82.5% if only one parent survives.

Divorced surviving spouses are eligible to receive the same amounts as widows and widowers. 

In the case of widows, widowers, and divorced spouses, there are a few additional rules to know. If you get remarried before turning 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled), you’ll no longer be eligible for survivor benefits. You can, however, continue receiving benefits based on your deceased spouse’s Social Security record if you get remarried after age 60 (or 50 if you’re disabled).

Maximizing Your Benefits

Widows, widowers, and surviving spouses can also opt to switch to their own retirement benefit starting at age 62. This only makes sense if your retirement benefit would be more than you’re receiving for survivor benefits. And remember that taking retirement benefits at 62 reduces your benefit amount, while delaying benefits up to age 70 can increase them.

One more thing to note: Your survivor benefit amount can be affected by any money you earn from working while receiving benefits. If you’re younger than full retirement age, your benefit amount can be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn above the annual limit. For 2020 the annual earnings limit is $18,240. In the year you reach your full retirement age, the deduction goes to $1 for every $3 earned above a higher limit. For 2020 that limit is $48,600.

How to Apply for Social Security Survivor Benefits

If you think you might be eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits after the death of a beneficiary, there are some steps you’ll need to take to apply for them. The first is reporting the death to the Social Security Administration if the funeral home hasn’t done that already. You can also begin the application process at the time you report the death. 

There are certain documents you’ll need to apply for Social Security survivor benefits. The documentation requirements depend on whether you’re applying for benefits as a widow or widower, as the deceased person’s parent, or as the parent of the deceased person’s child. Generally, the list includes things such as:

  • Proof of the beneficiary’s death (i.e. a death certificate)
  • Your birth certificate or other proof of birth
  • Proof of citizenship
  • Proof of marriage
  • Birth certificates for each child for whom you’re claiming benefits
  • W-2s and tax returns for the deceased beneficiary
  • Divorce decree if you’re applying as a divorced surviving spouse 

The Social Security Administration will accept photocopies of items such as ID cards and tax returns, but you’ll need to provide original copies of birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage certificates. These can be returned to you once your application for survivor benefits has been processed.

The Social Security Administration will also ask you questions to help determine your eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits. These questions cover basic things such as your name, date of birth, and address, but they also dive into your work and earnings history—and the deceased beneficiary’s work and earnings history, disability status, and military history. The Social Security Administration uses all of this information to process your application for benefits. 

The most important thing to remember about handling Social Security when a beneficiary dies is that delays can be costly. For instance, if you wait to report the death and continue receiving benefits in the meantime, that could trigger serious legal consequences. And the longer you wait to apply for survivor benefits, the longer you’ll have to wait to begin receiving them.