8 Common Questions Answered About Social Security Survivor Benefits

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When a loved one dies, the financial fallout to deal with often adds to your grief. In some circumstances, Social Security survivor benefits can fill part of that void. As of June 2020, Social Security paid monthly survivor benefits to approximately 6 million people.

But navigating the maze of Social Security benefits can be confusing, especially when you’re dealing with a loss. In this article, we’ll cover how survivor benefits work, who qualifies and other commonly asked questions.

How Do Social Security Survivor Benefits Work?

The first thing you need to know about is how Social Security is funded in general: You pay into Social Security through payroll taxes. If you’re a traditional employee, you pay 6.2% on the first $142,800 of your earnings for Social Security in 2021, plus 1.45% for Medicare, or a total of 7.65%. Your employer then matches that 7.65%.

In 2021, you get one Social Security credit for every $1,470 you earn, but you can’t earn more than four credits in a year. Once you have 40 credits, the equivalent of 10 years of full-time work, you’re considered fully insured. The requirement is lower for younger workers. When you’re fully insured, that means you’ll be eligible for retirement benefits. That also means certain family members may be eligible to take survivor benefits based on your record when you die.

Before we go any further, there are two key terms you need to know that apply to both Social Security retirement benefits and survivor benefits.

  • Full retirement age (FRA): The age at which you qualify for your primary insurance amount. If you were born before 1954, your full retirement age is 66. For people born between 1954 and 1960, it’s between 66 and 67. For anyone born in 1960 or later, it’s 67.
  • Primary insurance amount (PIA): The amount of your retirement benefit at your full retirement age. You can take a reduced amount as early as age 62. You can also hold out until age 70 to get an even bigger benefit than you’d get at 66 or 67. The more you’ve earned over your lifetime, the higher your primary insurance amount will be.

If you die before you start taking Social Security benefits, your survivors’ benefits are based on your primary insurance benefit. Let’s look at a few different scenarios. In all of them, we’ll assume your full retirement age is 67 and your primary insurance amount is $3,000 a month.

If you died at 40: Your survivors’ benefits would be based on the primary insurance amount of $3,000. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’d get $3,000 a month. But that’s the number you’d start with. Their benefit would be a percentage of that $3,000. We’ll discuss what that percentage would be in the next section.

If you died at 65: Your survivors’ benefits depend on whether you had already started your own retirement benefits.

Suppose you started benefits as soon as you blew out the candles on your 62nd birthday cake. You’d only receive two-thirds of your primary insurance amount. If your primary insurance amount was $3,000 a month, you’d get $2,000 since you started early. Survivor benefits are calculated as a percentage of $2,000, not $3,000.

But if you hadn’t started benefits yet? Your primary insurance amount of $3,000 is used for the calculation.

If you died at 90: Your survivors’ benefits depend on when you took your retirement benefits. If you started at 62, benefits are still based on $2,000. If you started at your full retirement age of 67, they’re based on $3,000.

But if you waited until 70 for the biggest possible benefit, you would have increased your monthly checks by 24%. That would put you at $3,720 a month. Your patience would pay off for your survivors, as their benefit would be based on $3,720 a month, as well.

Pro Tip

Project your future primary insurance amount using Social Security’s benefit estimator.

10 Social Security Survivor Benefit FAQs

Here are 10 commonly asked questions about Social Security survivor benefits. Note that this FAQ isn’t meant to provide personalized advice. If you have questions about your particular situation, calling your local Social Security office is a must.

1. Who Counts as a Survivor?

The most common reason you’d qualify for benefits is when your spouse or ex-spouse dies. However, certain other family members may also be eligible.

Widows and Widowers

If you’re a surviving spouse and you were married for at least nine months, you can receive:

  • 100% of your spouse’s benefit if you wait until your full retirement age.
  • Between 71.5% and 99% of your late spouse’s benefit if you claim early. You can start benefits as early as age 60, or 50 if you’re disabled.
  • 75% of your late spouse’s benefit, regardless of your age, if you’re caring for their child who’s 16 or younger, or who is disabled.

Ex-Spouses 

You can claim an ex-spouse’s Social Security whether they’re living or dead if the marriage lasted at least 10 years and you’ve been divorced for at least two years. Benefits are generally calculated the same way for spouses and ex-spouses. You can receive:

  • 100% of your ex-spouse’s benefit if you wait until your full retirement age.
  • Between 71.5% and 99% of your ex-spouse’s benefit if you claim early. You can start benefits as early as age 60, or 50 if you’re disabled.
  • 75% of your ex-spouse’s benefit, regardless of your age, if you’re caring for their child who’s 16 or younger, or who is disabled.

The rules for current and ex-spouses are pretty similar: Both can claim up to 50% of a living worker’s full retirement benefit.

But the rules change when the worker dies: Both current and ex-spouses are eligible for up to 100% of that person’s benefit.

If you were married to someone who was married multiple times, there’s no need to worry about who’s record the other spouses claim on. No one’s decision will affect anyone else’s benefits.

Unmarried Children

Children can typically receive 75% of their deceased parent’s benefit under the following conditions:

  • The child is under 18, or 19 if they’re still a full-time high school student

OR

  • The child is at least 22 and disabled, and the disability began before age 18.
  • They’re unmarried.

However, Social Security has a maximum family benefit. It usually ranges from about 150% to 180% of the deceased worker’s primary insurance amount. So if you’re a surviving spouse who’s eligible for 75% because you’re caring for two children who also qualify for 75%, you wouldn’t get 225% of your deceased spouse’s benefit. The formula for calculating the maximum family benefit is complex. Contact your local Social Security office if you have questions.

Note that if the person has an ex-spouse, any benefit they receive WILL NOT count toward your maximum family benefit.

Dependent Parents

If you’re the parent of the deceased, you could qualify if:

  • Your adult child provided at least half of your financial support.
  • And you’re 62 or older.

A dependent parent is generally eligible for 75% of their late child’s benefit, as long as this amount is higher than the benefit they’d get on their own.

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2. Can I Get Spousal Survivor Benefits if I Remarry?

You can remarry at age 60 (or 50 if you’re disabled) and still qualify for a late spouse’s benefits. This applies even if you and your late spouse were divorced. But if you remarry before then, you won’t qualify for their benefits.

If you’re receiving benefits because you’re caring for a child, your benefits will end when you get married again. Any benefits your child was receiving will continue as long as they’re eligible.

Note that if you’re taking benefits on the record of a living ex-spouse, the rule is different. If you’re married to someone else, you can’t claim your ex-spouse’s benefits, regardless of your age.

3. Can I Collect My Own Benefits and My Late Spouse’s?

No. The most you can collect is 100% of the larger benefit. If you’d get $2,000 a month from spousal survivor benefits, but you qualify for $2,500 on your own record, you’ll get your own $2,500 retirement benefit. You won’t receive survivor benefits.

4. Will I Get a Bigger Benefit by Waiting Until Age 70?

No. Waiting past your full retirement age until age 70 is a great way to maximize your Social Security when you’re claiming based on your own earnings. You get an 8% delayed retirement credit for every year you wait past your full retirement age. Benefits max out at 70. But it only works if you’re taking benefits based on your own earnings record.

If you’re claiming on a deceased spouse’s record, whether you were married or divorced at the time of their death, your benefit maxes out at your full retirement age of 66 or 67. The same rule applies when you take benefits based on a living spouse’s or ex-spouse’s record.

5. Can I Claim Survivor Benefits and Switch to My Own Larger Benefit Later?

Yes. You could take survivor benefits, then switch over to your own retirement benefit later on if it’s larger. Or you could do the opposite and take your own benefit and switch to survivor benefits if that boosts your payments.

This is a frequent source of confusion because the Bipartisan Budget Reconciliation Act of 2015 changed the rules for retirement benefits, but not for survivors benefits.

In the past, couples frequently coordinated benefits. The higher earner would hold out until 70 to take benefits. The lower earner would take benefits on their own record, then switch over to take 50% of their spouse’s higher benefit once the lower earner hit full retirement age. The law eliminated this option for people born after Jan. 2, 1954. But again, this doesn’t apply to survivor benefits.

Here’s an example of how it works for survivor benefits: Anna qualifies for a maximum survivor’s benefit of $2,000 a month based on her late husband Bob’s record. But if she waits until age 70, she can get a $3,000 monthly retirement benefit based on her own earnings.

Anna could start taking Bob’s benefit once she turns 60. She’d receive 71.5% of his $2,000 since she claimed right away, for a monthly benefit of $1,430. Or she could wait until her full retirement age and get the full $2,000 a month. Once Anna turns 70, she can switch over and collect her maximum benefit of $3,000.

But if Bob is still living? Anna doesn’t have the option of claiming spousal benefits, then switching to retirement benefits.

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6. Can I Work and Collect Survivor Benefits?

Yes, but if you haven’t reached full retirement age, Social Security will reduce your benefit by the following amounts in 2021:

  • $1 for every $2 you earn over $18,960.
  • $1 for every $3 of earnings above $50,520 the year you reach full retirement age.
  • Once you hit full retirement age, your earnings won’t impact your benefits.

These rules apply whether you’re taking retirement benefits or survivor benefits early.

However, if you’re caring for the deceased person’s child, the child’s benefits aren’t affected by your earnings. Even if you earned $100,000, you’d still get 75% of their benefit on behalf of the child. But you wouldn’t get 75% for yourself because your earnings would phase out your benefit.

7. Do I Get Disability if My Spouse Was on SSDI When They Died?

You can only get Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, based on your own disability. However, if your spouse was fully insured — remember, that typically means 10 years of full-time work — you may qualify for survivor benefits on their record.

8. How Do You Apply for Survivor Benefits?

Unlike with regular Social Security benefits, you can’t apply for survivor benefits online. You also can’t report someone’s death to Social Security online. If you give the funeral home the person’s Social Security number, they’ll often make the report.

If you need to report a death or apply for benefits, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can also visit your local office.

Check the Social Security Survivors Benefits page for a list of documents you’ll need to apply. If you’re missing a document, contact Social Security anyway. Staffers can often obtain the information they need from your state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Survivor Benefit Recap: The Big Takeaways

We get it: That was A LOT of information. Here are the major takeaways you need to remember:

  • Survivor benefits are based on the deceased worker’s primary insurance amount and whether they’ve taken benefits.
  • If the surviving spouse (or ex-spouse) takes benefits based on their own age, they’ll get 71.5% of the late spouse’s benefit if they start at age 60 (or 50 if disabled). If they hold out until full retirement age, they’ll get 100%. But delaying past full retirement age won’t result in more money.
  • The maximum benefit for spouses and ex-spouse’s is 100% of whichever benefit is bigger: the late spouse’s survivor benefits or the living spouse’s retirement benefit.
  • Unmarried children can typically receive 75% of their deceased parent’s benefit if they’re under 18 (or 19 if they’re still in high school), or if they’re disabled.
  • If a surviving spouse is caring for the deceased person’s child who’s under age 16 or who is permanently disabled, they can receive 75% of the benefit regardless of their age.

A final, final thought: Survivor benefits can be a lifeline when someone dies. However, Social Security alone — whether you’re taking retirement or survivor benefits — typically isn’t enough to pay for all your retirement expenses. If you’re still working, it’s essential to save for retirement.

Don’t be discouraged if you’re behind on saving. Anything you can set aside to supplement your Social Security will make your retirement years a lot more comfortable.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She writes the Dear Penny personal finance advice column. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected]