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How does the Social Security Survivor benefit work? Thumbnail

How does the Social Security Survivor benefit work?

How does the Social Security Survivor benefit work?

Social Security is a major source of retirement income for most Americans. With over 1,800 rules to the program, navigating the Social Security system can be complex. Making sure you have a good strategy in place to maximize your benefit is a cornerstone of a well-crafted retirement income plan. Today, we are going to explore an important aspects of the Social Security system: survivor benefits.

What is a Survivor Benefit?

Social Security survivors benefits are paid to widows, widowers, and dependents of eligible workers. When a covered worker dies, their widow may be eligible to continue receiving their benefit.

Who Qualifies for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Monthly survivor benefits are available to certain family members, including:

  • A widow(er) age 60 or older (age 50 or older if they are disabled) who has not remarried
  • A widow(er) of any age who is caring for the deceased's child (or children) 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 income and whose own Social Security benefit would not be larger than that of the deceased offspring
  • A surviving divorced spouse, if they meet other eligibility requirements

    Benefits for Spouses

    A widow or widower who has reached their full retirement age can receive 100% of the deceased's benefit. A widow or widower who is between age 60 and full retirement age can receive 71.5% to 99% of that benefit. A disabled widow or widower, age 50 through 59, can receive 71.5%. A widow or widower of any age who's caring for a child under age 16 can receive 75%. Divorced spouses, if they qualify, can receive the same percentages as widows and widowers.

    How Can Surviving Spouses Maximize Their Benefits?

    As noted above, surviving spouses (except for those with disabilities or who are caring for a qualifying child) are eligible to collect a reduced benefit as early as age 60. Still, they must wait until their full retirement age to collect the maximum 100% benefit.

    What If You Haven't Applied for Retirement Benefits Yet?

    If your spouse dies but you have not begun to collect your benefit you have several options to consider. Making a good decision can help maximize your benefits. If your own benefit is higher, you can collect the survivor benefit first and then switch over to your higher benefit at age 70 when it’s the largest it will be. Conversely, if your own benefit is small compared to the survivor benefit (and will be even at age 70), you could take your own (reduced) benefit at age 62, which is the earliest age at which you're eligible. Then, at your full retirement age (66 or 67), you could switch over to the survivors benefit.

    Spouses who are eligible for both the survivor benefit and the retirement benefit based on their own work record can maximize their total benefits by taking them in the most advantageous order. 

    The right order for you will depend on the size of each benefit. If both payouts currently are about the same, it may be best to take the survivor benefit at age 60. It's going to be reduced because you're taking it early, but you can collect that benefit from age 60 to age 70 while your own retirement benefit continues to grow. Then you can collect your own benefit starting at age 70 when it maxes out.

    Please contact the Social Security Administration to discuss which benefit to take first before applying for either benefit. Ideally, you want to be sure you're choosing the option that best fits your financial circumstances by considering all of the variables, which could include your age, your deceased spouse's age, and your eligible benefits—including both the survivor and your own retirement benefits.

    How do you report a death?

    You should notify Social Security immediately when a person dies. However, you cannot report a death or apply for survivors benefits online.

    In most cases, the funeral home will report the person’s death to Social Security. You should give the funeral home the deceased person’s Social Security number if you want them to make the report.

    If you need to report a death or apply for benefits, call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). You can speak to a Social Security representative between 8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can find the phone number for your local office by using the Social Security Office Locator and looking under Social Security Office Information. The toll-free “Office” number is your local office.

    How Long Do You Have To Be Married To Get Social Security Survivor Benefits?

    A surviving spouse must have been married for at least one year to be eligible to receive their spouse's Social Security death benefits. However, if the surviving spouse is the parent of the spouse's child, the one-year rule is waived. A divorced spouse may be eligible to receive benefits if they were married to their former spouse for at least 10 years.

    What Percentage of Social Security Benefits Does a Widow or Widower Receive?

    The surviving spouse can receive 100% of the benefits at full retirement age. If the surviving spouse is between age 60 and their full retirement age, they can receive reduced benefits—usually 71.5–99%. If the surviving spouse is disabled, they can begin receiving 71.5% of the benefits at age 50. Surviving spouses with children under 16 receive 75% of the benefits

    How Long Do You Receive Social Security Survivor Benefits?

    Social Security survivor benefits are payable to the surviving spouse for the remainder of their life. Restrictions apply for divorced spouses eligible to receive benefits.

    Benefits for surviving children end at age 18 or age 19 and 2 months if still pursuing their elementary or secondary education. For surviving children who became disabled before age 22, their benefits continue for life.

    While it’s not fun or pleasant to think about the death of your spouse, it is important to understand how your Social Security benefit will be affected, essentially, the smaller of the two benefits will disappear. It is also important to recognize that delaying the larger of the two benefits will ensure that the surviving spouse keeps the largest benefit forever. Making a good decision around the timing of when you take Social Security can have a large impact on your lifetime income and can help ensure you do not run out of money in retirement.

    As always, please feel free to contact the office if you have any questions about your Social Security benefits.