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 die.

Calculating the Survivor Benefit

You have to have worked a certain number of years, and amassed the requisite number of "credits," for your loved ones to be eligible. In general, individuals qualify for Social Security benefits once they have acquired a minimum of 40 credits (each year in the workforce, resulting in at least $4,800 in compensation, earns the maximum four credits per year). Thus, it is necessary to work and pay Social Security taxes for at least 10 years in order to accrue the required amount.

The exact number of credits you need to have family members be eligible for survivor benefits depends on your age when you die: The younger you are, the fewer credits you need, but nobody needs more than 40 credits (10 years of work). However, in the event of your death, a special provision allows benefits to be paid to your dependent children and the spouse who cares for them if you have acquired six credits or more within the three calendar years prior to 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 have 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 that if you begin collecting benefits earlier than your full 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 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 support
  • A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances

A one-time 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. 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.

Because each case can vary so 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 is always available on the Social Security Administration website.

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 at which 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. However, your surviving spouse will still be able to collect benefits on his or her own account after age 62, should his or her own wage history result in a higher payout.

So if your spouse has passed away, and you're approaching 60, you have a pretty important decision you need to make: Are you going to take that survivor benefit once your 60th birthday arrives – or are you going to wait until 62 to claim your own benefit?

The answer should revolve around the size of each benefit payout. If they currently are about the same, you would take the survivor benefit at age 60 – again, it's going to be reduced, because you're taking it early; but the reduction factor applied to survivor benefits is the smallest of all the reduction factors. So you could collect that benefit from 60 all the way up to age 70, while your own benefit continued to grow; and then you can collect that much larger benefit starting at 70. 

Conversely, if your own benefit is rather small relative to the survivor benefit, you wait until 62, you take your own (reduced) benefit from 62 to 66, and then switch over to that survivor benefit at 66. Because it's not getting any bigger after that point, and because that is going to be your largest payout, you should take it then.

The Blackout Period

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

A widow or widower doesn't qualify for benefits for her- or himself until age 60, remember. However, that spouse (regardless of age) can collect payouts as the caregiver for the deceased's children – until the kids turn 16. The kids themselves qualify for benefits (paid to the parent), until they turn 18 (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 by her dead husband. 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, and 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 get a death benefit that can last him or her until the age of 61, one year after Social Security eligibility is reinstated.

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