Although best known for retirement benefits, Social Security actually pays four different types of benefits: retirement, disability, family and survivor. Social Security survivor benefits provide income for the families of workers who are deceased.

Calculating Social Security Survivor Benefits

You have to work a certain number of years and amass the requisite number of "credits" for your loved ones to be eligible. You are able to earn up to four credits each year. In 2017, every time you earn $1,300 you receive one credit until you hit $5,200, or four credits. The exact number of credits you need to have for family members to be eligible for survivor benefits depends on your age when you die. The younger you are, the fewer credits you need, but the maximum you will ever need is 40 credits. For most people, it is necessary to work and pay Social Security taxes for at least 10 years to accrue the required amount.

However, if your death leaves a spouse with dependent children, a special provision allows benefits to be paid to them if you have earned six credits (1.5 years) or more within the three calendar years prior to your death.

As with the regular retirement benefits, the amount of survivor benefits that your family would receive is based on your average lifetime earnings. The more you earned, the higher the benefit. If you are eligible to collect Social Security benefits upon retirement, your spouse or dependents may be eligible to collect them in your stead in the event of your death.

Benefit amounts are based on the maximum amount the deceased would have collected if still living. This means if you begin collecting benefits earlier than your normal retirement age (NRA), resulting in a decreased payout (to account for the anticipated extra years), any benefits paid to your surviving family members will be based on this reduced amount. In addition, the age at which your spouse or dependents begin collecting will dictate the amount of the benefit.

Who Qualifies for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Monthly benefits are available to certain family members, including:

  • A widow(er) age 60 or older (age 50 or older if he or she is disabled), who has not remarried
  • A widow(er) at any age who is caring for the deceased's child who is under age 16 or disabled
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is younger than age 18 (or up to age 19 if a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school), or 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22 (For related reading, see: Are Social Security benefits for children considered taxable income?)
  • A stepchild, grandchild, step-grandchild or adopted child under certain circumstances
  • Parents, age 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their income
  • A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances

A one-time death benefit payment of $255 can be paid to your surviving spouse if he or she was living with you, or if you were living apart and your spouse was receiving certain Social Security benefits on your record. In cases where there is no surviving spouse, the one-time payment is made to a child who is eligible for benefits on the deceased's record in the month of death.

How Big Are the Benefits?

Children under age 18, or 19 if still attending primary or secondary school, and disabled dependent children will receive 75% of the normal benefit amount. A surviving spouse who cares for your child under age 16 may begin collecting at any age and will receive 75% of your benefit amount. Dependent parents of the deceased are also eligible to collect benefits if they relied on the deceased for at least half of their income, didn't remarry after the death and are not eligible to receive a larger retirement benefit of their own. For a single surviving dependent parent, benefits will be paid at 82.5% of your normal amount. If you are survived by both of your dependent parents, they will be eligible to collect 75% each.

Strategies for Surviving Spouses

As of 2017, surviving spouses are eligible to collect benefits as early as age 60, but benefits collected before the beneficiary reaches full retirement age are subject to reduction. Those who begin collecting before this age (66 for people born between 1945-1956, 67 for those born in 1962 or after) will receive between 71.5% and 99% of the normal benefit amount, depending on the exact age collection begins. Widows or widowers who begin collecting surviving spouse benefits after full retirement age, up to age 70, will receive 100% of this amount. (For related reading, see: How do Social Security benefits for widows or widowers work?)

However, a surviving spouse can collect benefits on his or her own account after age 62 if his or her own wage history results in a higher payout. So if your spouse has passed away and you're approaching 60, you have an important decision to make: Are you going to take the survivor benefit once your 60th birthday arrives, or are you going to wait until 62 to claim your own benefit?

The answer should be based on the size of each benefit's payout. If they currently are about the same, you should take the survivor benefit at age 60. It's going to be reduced because you're taking it early, but you can collect that benefit from age 60 to age 70, while your own benefit continues to grow. Then you can collect your own retirement benefit starting at 70. 

Conversely, if your own benefit is small compared to the survivor benefit, you should take your own (reduced) benefit at age 62. At age 66, switch over to the survivor benefit because it will not grow any larger at that point and will offer you a larger benefit than your own.

The Blackout Period

In some cases, families may inadvertently fall into a blackout period when they are ineligible to collect survivor benefits. Blackout periods are a result of inconsistencies in the rules governing the different sorts of survivor benefits for spouses, offspring and parents.

As mentions above, a widow or widower doesn't qualify for benefits for herself or himself until age 60. However, that spouse (regardless of age) can collect payouts as the caregiver for the deceased's children until they turn 16. The kids themselves qualify for benefits (paid to the surviving parent) until they turn 18 (or 19 if still in school). But in between the offspring's 18th birthday (when their survivor benefits cease) and the spouse's 60th birthday (when his or hers resume), no one in the family is eligible to collect.

For example, consider a woman left widowed at age 30 with a two-year-old son. As the boy's caregiver, she is entitled to collect Social Security benefits for 14 years, until his 16th birthday. After that, the son continues to receive his survivor benefits for two more years, until he's 18. His mom will be 46 at that point, leaving her ineligible for any payments until her widow's benefits kick in when she's 60. In this case the Social Security blackout period lasts 14 years.

There is an exception for disability. A widow or widower can begin collecting survivor benefits if he or she is disabled and the disability was incurred within seven years of the spouse's death.

Managing the Blackout Period

A common remedy for the blackout period is life insurance—specifically term life insurance, which provides coverage for a predetermined amount of time, usually 15, 20 or 30 years. For example, consider a couple, both 31 years old, that just had a child. If either parent dies, the surviving spouse is eligible to collect benefits until he or she is 47 years old (when the child is 16). With the purchase of 30-year term life insurance, the survivor gets a death benefit that will last until the age of 61, one year after Social Security eligibility is reinstated.

Applying for Survivor Benefits

Because cases can vary widely, it is not possible to apply for survivor benefits online. However, applications can be made over the phone or by appointment at your local Social Security office. Current requirements and contact information are always available on the Social Security Administration website. Applying for survivor benefits may require you to submit specific information such as a death certificate, marriage certificate, proof of citizenship, or divorce decree, so having those documents and the other important information listed on the website will help expedite the process.

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