Although best-known for its monthly payouts to retirees, Social Security actually pays several different types of benefits, as its official name, Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI), implies. If you are eligible to collect Social Security benefits upon retirement, your spouse or dependents may be eligible for survivor benefits in the event of your death. But as with many federal programs, the rules can be complicated.

Key Takeaways

  • If you have qualified to collect Social Security when you retire, your family members may be eligible for survivor benefits after you die.
  • Survivor benefits are available to widows and widowers, minor children, older disabled children, and dependent parents of the deceased.
  • Stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, or adopted children can sometimes collect benefits as well.
  • Benefit amounts are based on the survivor's relationship to the deceased and other factors.

Who Qualifies for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Monthly survivor benefits are available to certain family members, including:

  • A widow(er) age 60 or older (age 50 or older if they are disabled) who has not remarried
  • A widow(er) of any age who is caring for the deceased's child (or children) 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
  • 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 and whose own Social Security benefit would not be larger than that of the deceased offspring
  • A surviving divorced spouse, if they meet other eligibility requirements

A one-time death benefit payment of $255 can be paid to your surviving spouse if they were 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 can be made to a child who is eligible for benefits on the deceased's record in the month of death.

How Are Social Security Survivor Benefits Calculated?

First of all, you have to work a certain number of years and amass the requisite number of "credits" each year for your loved ones to be eligible for benefits—which you have to do to be eligible yourself. For 2021, you receive one credit for every $1,470 you earn, up to $5,880, for a total of four credits a year.

The exact number of credits you need 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 (which takes about 1.5 years) or more within the three calendar years prior to your death.

As with 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, up to a certain maximum.

Benefit amounts are based on how much the deceased would have collected at full retirement age if still living. But if you have begun collecting benefits earlier than your full or "normal" retirement age, resulting in a decreased payout, any benefits paid to your surviving family members will be based on that reduced amount. In addition, the age at which your spouse or dependents begin collecting will affect the size of their benefit.

Fast Fact

If you begin to collect Social Security benefits before you reach normal retirement age, not only will you receive a reduced benefit, but after your death, your surviving spouse will, too.

How Big Are the Benefits?

Benefits also vary according to the survivor's relationship to the deceased and the age at which they begin receiving benefits.

Benefits for Spouses

A widow or widower who has reached their own full retirement age can receive 100% of the deceased's benefit. A widow or widower who is between age 60 and full retirement age can receive 71.5% to 99% of that benefit. A disabled widow or widower, age 50 through 59, can receive 71.5%. A widow or widower of any age who's caring for a child under age 16 can receive 75%. Divorced spouses, if they qualify, can receive the same percentages as widows and widowers.

Benefits for Children and Others

Children under age 18 (or 19, if still attending primary or secondary school) and disabled dependent children can receive 75% of the deceased's benefit. A surviving dependent parent can receive 82.5% of the benefit; if two dependent parents survive, they are eligible to collect 75% each.

How Can Surviving Spouses Maximize Their Benefits?

As noted above, surviving spouses (except for those with disabilities or who are caring for a qualifying child) are eligible to collect a reduced benefit as early as age 60. Still, they must wait until their own full retirement age to collect the maximum 100% benefit.

If You're Already Receiving Retirement Benefits

For those already being paid retirement benefits, they can only apply for benefits as a widow or widower if the current retirement benefit being received is less than the survivor benefit. In other words, they'll pay you the higher of the two benefits. However, both benefits cannot be combined together and taken at the same time.

If You Haven't Applied for Retirement Benefits Yet

Spouses who are eligible for both the survivor benefit and the retirement benefit based on their own work record, can maximize their total benefits by taking them in the most advantageous order. The Social Security Administration explains how this works:

If you are also eligible for retirement benefits (but haven't applied yet), you have an additional option. You can apply for retirement or survivors benefits now and switch to the other (higher) benefit at a later date. 

The right order for you will depend on the size of each benefit. If both payouts currently are about the same, it may be best to 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 retirement benefit continues to grow. Then you can collect your own benefit starting at age 70 when it maxes out.

Conversely, if your own benefit is small compared to the survivor benefit (and will be even at age 70), you could take your own (reduced) benefit at age 62, which is the earliest age at which you're eligible. Then, at age 66, you could switch over to the survivor benefit. However, the survivor benefit would be reduced since it was taken early or before full retirement age.

Please contact the Social Security Administration to discuss which benefit to take first before applying for either benefit. Ideally, you want to be sure you're choosing the option that best fits your financial circumstances by considering all of the variables, which could include your age, your deceased spouse's age, and your eligible benefits—including both the survivor and your own retirement benefits.

Eligible for Benefits in the Last 12 Months

There's an exception for those who recently applied for retirement benefits. If you became entitled to retirement benefits less than 12 months ago, you might be allowed to withdraw your retirement application and apply for survivor benefits only. You can then reapply for your retirement benefits later when the benefits will be a higher amount.

Beware the "Blackout Period"

As noted earlier, a widow or widower generally doesn't qualify for their own benefits until age 60. However, that person (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 they are still in school). But between the child's 18th birthday (when their survivor benefits cease) and the spouse's 60th birthday (when their benefits resume), no one in the family is eligible to collect. That's what's known as a blackout period.

Consider, for example; a woman is left widowed at the age of 30 with a two-year-old son. As her son's caregiver, she is entitled to collect Social Security benefits for 14 years, until his 16th birthday. After that, her son continues to receive his survivor benefits for two more years, until he's 18. His mom will be 48 at that point, leaving the family ineligible for any payments until her widow's benefits become available when she's 60. In this case, the Social Security blackout period lasts 12 years.

One possible solution is for families to make sure they have adequate life insurance to support a surviving spouse during any blackout period. Take, for instance, a couple, both 31 years old, who recently had a child. If either parent dies, the surviving spouse is eligible to collect benefits until they are 47 years old (when the child is 16). If they both buy 30-year term life insurance policies and keep up with the premiums, they'll be assured of coverage until age 61—one year after Social Security eligibility is reinstated—in case one of them dies.

If three or more family members are receiving survivor benefits, they may be subject to Social Security's rules that limit the maximum family benefit.

How Do You Apply for Survivor Benefits?

Because individual circumstances can vary widely, it is not possible to apply for survivor benefits online. However, you can apply 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 documents, such as a death certificate, marriage certificate, proof of citizenship, or a divorce decree, so rounding them up beforehand will help expedite the process.