How do Social Security survivors’ benefits work?

1
Monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images
Bankrate Logo

Why you can trust Bankrate

While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here's an explanation for .

When someone dies, the surviving family members have a range of financial responsibilities to attend to during the grieving process. One of those responsibilities is making sure that the Social Security Administration (SSA) is aware of the death. You won’t be able to report it online, though. If you need to file a death notice, call the SSA directly at 1-800-772-1213, or visit the nearest office in-person.

In addition to filing a notice, you may need to apply for survivors’ benefits to make sure those benefits are redirected to certain qualifying family members. For surviving spouses or young children, those benefits can make a big difference in their financial well-being. According to the AARP, the average monthly Social Security benefit is $1,543. Depending on your relationship to the deceased and your age, you may be eligible to receive his full monthly benefit.

How do you qualify for survivors’ benefits?

If you are 60 or older and were married to the deceased for at least nine months prior to his or her passing, you qualify for survivors’ benefits. These benefits are not limited to surviving spouses, though. All of these types of familial relationships may also be eligible.

  • An unmarried child under the age of 18
  • A child 18 or older who has a disability that began before turning 22
  • Certain surviving divorced spouses
  • Stepchild, grandchild, step-grandchild or adopted child
  • Parents of the deceased who are 62 or older and relied on beneficiary for at least half of their financial support

What percentage of Social Security benefits does a widow or widower receive?

A widow or widower will receive a portion of the deceased’s monthly benefits, and the percentage varies based on your full retirement age and a few other factors.

For anyone born after 1960, full retirement age is 67 years old. If you were born before that date, use the SSA’s tool to determine yours. Here’s a rundown of what a widow or widower can expect with percentage breakdowns. Also, keep in mind that the more money the deceased contributed to Social Security, the bigger the benefits will be for the widow or widower.

  • Full retirement age or older: 100 percent
  • Widow or widower between the age of 60 and full retirement age: 5 percent to 99 percent
  • Disabled widow or widower between the age of 50 and 59: 5 percent
  • A widow or widower of any age caring for a child under 16: 75 percent

In addition to the percentage of monthly benefits, you may be able to receive a $255 lump-sum death payment.

Children under the age of 18 (or 19 if enrolled in secondary school full time) can receive 75 percent of the benefits.

When can a survivor collect Social Security benefits?

According to the SSA, survivors may be able to begin collecting benefits as soon as the month that the beneficiary dies. It’s important to apply for the benefits immediately, too, as the SSA points out that some benefits may not be retroactive. So, for example, if you wait for three months, those last three checks could be unable to be claimed.

What do you need to apply for survivors’ benefits?

If you were already receiving spousal benefits before the death, you will not need to submit an application. Instead, the SSA will automatically convert your package to your spouse’s. If that’s not the case, complete this form, and gather these documents:

  • Proof of the death
  • Birth certificate or other proof of birth
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were not born in the United States
  • U.S. military discharge papers if you had military service before 1968
  • For disability benefits, the two forms (SSA-3368 and SSA-827) that describe your medical condition and authorize disclosure of information to the SSA
  • W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax returns for the preceding year
  • Final divorce decree, if applying as a surviving divorced spouse
  • Marriage certificate
  • Your checkbook to arrange direct deposit

Learn more:

Written by
David McMillin
Contributing writer
David McMillin writes about credit cards, mortgages, banking, taxes and travel. David's goal is to help readers figure out how to save more and stress less.