Although best-known for its monthly payouts to retirees, the Social Security Administration actually pays several different types of benefits, as the official name of its Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program implies. Social Security survivor benefits provide income for the families of workers who are deceased. 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. It sounds straightforward but, as with so many federal programs, the rules and qualifications can be complicated.

Key Takeaways

  • If you have qualified to collect Social Security when you retire, your spouse or children may be allowed to collect a percentage of your payouts after you die.
  • Survivor benefits may be collected by unmarried 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.
  • A blackout period can occur when a child is too old and his or her remaining parent is too young to collect survivor benefits.
  • You must apply for survivor benefits over the phone or in person.

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—as indeed, you have to do to be eligible yourself. In 2019, you receive one credit for every $1,360 you earn, up to $5,440, for a total of four credits a year.

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 (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. 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, 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 (or children) 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
  • 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 the dead offspring's
  • 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.

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?

Children under age 18, or 19 if still attending primary or secondary school, and disabled dependent children receive 75% of the normal benefit amount. A surviving spouse who cares for your minor child (or children) receives 75% of your benefit amount. A surviving single parent receives benefits at 82.5% of your normal amount. If you are survived by both of your dependent parents, they are eligible to collect 75% each.

How Can Surviving Spouses Maximize the Benefits?

As of 2019, 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 and 1956, 67 for those born in 1962 or after) 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, receive 100% of this amount.

However, a surviving spouse can collect benefits on their own account after age 62 if their 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 (partial) benefit?

The answer should be based on the size of each benefit's payout. If both payouts 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.

What Is a 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.

Causes of the conundrum

As noted above, a widow or widower doesn't qualify for their own benefits 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 they are still in school). But in 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.

Consider, for example, a woman left widowed at 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.

Eligible family members may be able to receive survivor benefits for the very month in which the Social Security recipient died.

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

One possible solution for a 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.

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 he or she is 47 years old (when the child is 16). With the purchase of a 30-year term life insurance policy, the survivor gets a death benefit that will last until the age of 61, one year after Social Security eligibility is reinstated.

How Do You Apply 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 documents, such as a death certificate, marriage certificate, proof of citizenship, or divorce decree, so having these and the other important information listed on the website will help expedite the process.