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What Is the Social Security Survivor Benefit?

Social Security provides benefits to your survivors, but it’s not just an easy application that you fill out.

Written by Laurel Kenner / July 11, 2022

Quick Bites

  • Survivor benefit calculations are, to put it mildly, really darned complicated. Many families may be eligible, but for just about every rule there is an exception, a ceiling, or an expiration date.
  • You cannot apply for survivors’ benefits online like you can with some other programs. You have to call the national toll-free line or make an appointment at the local office.
  • Some benefits aren’t retroactive and some expire, so call or visit ASAP.

When your spouse dies, so much demands your attention: notifying friends and relatives, making memorial arrangements, and giving yourself time to grieve. Add to that the task of applying for Social Security survivor benefits. Here’s what you need to know.

Inside this article

  1. How do survivors’ benefits work?
  2. How benefits are calculated
  3. Rules for the differently abled
  4. Spousal eligibility
  5. The "Blackout Period"
  6. It's not great for widows
  7. A prerequisite for applying
  8. Only 2 ways to apply
  9. Additional info

How do survivors’ benefits work?

If the deceased person worked long enough under Social Security, family members may be eligible for monthly payments.

That includes surviving spouses, unmarried children, and divorced spouses. In some cases, stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren or adopted children may be eligible.

Parents, stepparents, and adoptive parents may be eligible too, if the worker had been paying at least half their support.

How are survivor benefits calculated?

Social Security uses a system of credits based on a worker’s lifetime wages or self-employment income.[1]

The greater the worker’s lifetime earnings, the more survivors’ may receive. The younger the worker, the fewer work credits are needed.[2]

There are many exceptions, and the calculations can be very complex, depending on age, disabilities, remarriage, and disabilities. Here are a few samples of the many “if-then” scenarios:

  • A surviving spouse of any age who’s caring for the worker’s under-16 child may receive 75% of the basic benefit amount.

  • A child under age 18 (19 if attending 12th grade or lower) or with a disability that begins before age 22, may receive 75%.

  • Divorced spouses can collect survivor benefits if the marriage lasted at least 10 years, but they become ineligible if they remarry before 60 (50 if they’re disabled).

The total amount a family receives is limited to between 150% and 180% of the basic benefit amount, and everyone’s payment is reduced proportionately. (Payments to divorced spouses don’t count.)[3]

“The rules are complicated and vary depending on your situation, so talk to one of our representatives about the choices available to you,” Social Security advises.[4]

Different rules for the differently abled

Rules for disabled survivors are less onerous.

For example, benefits paid to unmarried children stop at 18, but they can get benefits for life, starting at any age, if they have a continuing disability that began before age 22.

Similarly, surviving spouses don’t have to wait until turning 60 before applying, if they’re disabled; they are eligible at 50.

How long do you have to be married to get survivor benefits? What percentage do you get, and for how long?

Generally, you must have been married at least nine months before collecting benefits, but there are exceptions.[5]

Here are some guidelines:

  • If the surviving spouse waits to claim the survivor benefit until reaching full retirement age (66 to 67, depending on birth year), they may receive 100% of the basic benefit amount.

  • If they decide to claim benefits between 60 and 66, they will receive between 71% and 99%.

  • If they remarry before 60, they become ineligible. (But if the later marriage ends, they may be eligible once more.)

Benefits for divorced spouses are calculated in a similar way.[6]

Social Security Spousal Benefits

Social Security Spousal Benefits

As a spouse, you can collect Social Security benefits earned by your partner.

Find out more

If the deceased took early retirement and was receiving reduced benefits, survivors receive payments based on the reduced benefit.

The "Blackout Period"

Many young families of deceased workers face a period of years without survivors’ benefits when the children complete high school.

That gap is known as “the blackout period,” and here’s how it happens:

  • First, the widowed spouse loses benefits when her youngest child turns 16. (If she remarries, the benefits end earlier.)

  • The child’s benefits last two or three more years.

And then they’re all on their own.

The spouse will be eligible for survivor benefits again when they turn 60, unless they have remarried before then.[7]

Elderly widows may find themselves much less well off

Simply because women live longer, they’re more likely to become widowed.

In fact, according to a 2004 tabulation by the Urban Institute of Social Security data, almost 99% of survivors’ benefit beneficiaries 60 and older were women.[8]

When a retired worker dies, the surviving spouse receives a benefit equal to the deceased worker’s full retirement benefit, if it was higher than her own. If she was receiving an equal or higher amount, she’ll get nothing extra.

The loss of that extra payment can drastically reduce household income.[9] That’s particularly true today, as private pensions have largely disappeared and stock and bond market volatility has increased (not in a good way).

A prerequisite for applying

Before you apply for survivors’ benefits, Social Security must be notified of the death.[10]

Notification can be made in three ways:

  • Give the deceased’s Social Security number to the funeral home and ask them to report the death.

  • Call the national Social Security line at 1-800-772,1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

  • Make an appointment at your local Social Security office.

Pandemic restrictions disrupted this process. Local Social Security offices were closed due to COVID precautions, and only reopened in April 2022. Some people couldn’t reach anyone on the national 800 line.

“How many people even had a funeral?” says William J. Arnone, chief executive of the National Academy of Social Insurance, a Washington research organization preparing a report on children who fell through the cracks in the COVID pandemic, in an interview.

While Social Security does not ask for the cause of death, NASI’s preliminary research indicates that 200,000 children may have lost caregivers to COVID and as many as half of them may not be receiving survivors’ benefits, he said. There was no outreach effort, and surviving caregivers may not have known about it.

Only 2 ways to apply

Once Social Security learns of the death, either from you or the funeral director, you can apply for benefits.

While you can apply for many Social Security programs online, you can’t do that when you’re reporting a death or applying for survivors’ benefits. [11, 12]

There are only two ways to apply:

  • Call the national Social Security line, 1-800-772-1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; or

  • Call the local Social Security office and make an appointment.

Additional info

  • If you’re already receiving benefits on your spouse’s or parent’s work record, Social Security will automatically change those benefits to survivors’ benefits after the death is reported.[13]

  • If you’re receiving retirement or disability benefits on your own record, however, you’ll need to apply for survivors’ benefits. Social Security will check if you can get a higher payment by switching to your spouse’s benefit. [14]

  • If you are not currently receiving benefits, you should apply for survivors’ benefits promptly because, in some cases, benefits may not be retroactive.[15]

  • Surviving children and spouses might also be eligible for the Special Lump Sum Death Payment, currently set at $255. You must apply for it within two years of the date of death.[16]

Article Sources
  1. “Survivor Benefits,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/#anchor2
  2. “If You Are the Survivor,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html#h7
  3. “If You Are the Survivor,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html#h7
  4. “Understanding the Benefits,” Social Security Administration, 2022. https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10024.pdf
  5. “Social Security Widow(er)’s Insurance Benefits Eligibility Scenario: Married Less Than 9 Months,” Benefits.gov. https://www.benefits.gov/benefit/2898#:~:text=Usually%2C%20a%20person%20must%20be,of%20the%20Social%20Security%20Handbook.
  6. “How Do Survivor Benefits Work?” AARP, updated April 8, 2022. https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/questions-answers/how-do-survivor-benefits-work.html
  7. “If You Are the Survivor,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html
  8. “Women and Social Security,” Footnote 3, The Retirement Project, The Urban Institute, December 2005. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/52141/900902-Women-and-Social-Security.PDF
  9. “Social Security for Widowed Spouses in Retirement,” National Academy of Social Insurance. https://www.nasi.org/learn/social-security/social-security-for-widowed-spouses-in-retirement/
  10. “Survivor Benefits,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/#anchor2
  11. “Apply for Social Security Benefits,” Social S
  12. “Social Security Office Locator,” Social Security. https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp#officeResults
  13. “If You Are the Survivor,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html#h7
  14. “If You Are the Survivor,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html#h7
  15. “If You Are the Survivor,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html#h7
  16. “If You Are the Survivor,” Social Security. https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html#h7

About the Author

Laurel Kenner

Laurel Kenner

Laurel is a seasoned, award-winning journalist with over 20 years of experience. She is an accomplished financial commentator and co-author of Practical Speculation, a book on statistical analysis in investment. Laurel brings clarity and context to writing and is skilled at making complex issues easy to understand.

Full bio

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