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How do Social Security survivors benefits work?

Older widow looking out of a window in an office
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Older widow looking out of a window in an office
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Social Security benefits are thought of primarily as retirement payments, but when someone in your family passes away, you might be entitled to benefits under their account as survivors benefits. Widows and widowers are typically the main recipients of a deceased’s Social Security benefits, but a number of dependents and family members can claim these survivors benefits as well.

Below are the ways you can apply for the benefit, and find out if you qualify.

Social Security survivors benefits: How to get started

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 notified of the death as soon as possible. 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 Social Security Administration, the average monthly retirement benefit is $1,669 (as of June 2022). Depending on your relationship to the deceased and your age, you may be eligible to receive your spouse’s full monthly benefit.

How do you qualify for survivors benefits?

If you are 60 or older (or 50 or older with a disability) 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 the following other types of familial relationships may also be eligible:

  • A widow or widower caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or has a disability and is receiving child’s benefits
  • An unmarried child under the age of 18 (or up to 19, if going to elementary or secondary school full time)
  • 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 the deceased 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 their 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 your full retirement age.

Here’s a rundown of what a widow or widower can expect to receive, 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 of the deceased worker’s benefit amount
  • Widow or widower between the age of 60 and full retirement age: 71 ½  percent to 99 percent
  • Disabled widow or widower between the age of 50 and 59: 71 ½  percent
  • A widow or widower of any age caring for a child under 16: 75 percent
  • A child under age 18 (or under age 19, if enrolled in school) or who has a disability: 75 percent
  • Dependent parents of the deceased worker, age 62 or older: 81 ½ percent (if one surviving parent) or 75 percent to each parent (if two surviving parents).

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

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 Form SSA-10, and gather these documents:

  • Proof of 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
  • 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
Written by
David McMillin
Contributing writer
David McMillin is a contributing writer for Bankrate and covers topics like credit cards, mortgages, banking, taxes and travel. David's goal is to help readers figure out how to save more and stress less.
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Senior investing and wealth management reporter