Social Security Survivor Benefits

Survivor benefits can help other family members maintain their standard of living after the death of a loved one who was eligible for Social Security.

What Happens When A Social Security Beneficiary Dies?

No benefits are payable the month that a beneficiary dies. This means that the Social Security check received the month after an individual has died should be returned to the Social Security Administration. Methods for returning the check differ depending on whether the check is direct deposited or arrives in the mail. If Social Security checks are being direct deposited, notify the bank as soon as possible. If the check arrives in the mail, take it to a local Social Security office to have the receiver’s name changed.

Generally, the name will be changed to that of a close family member—such as a spouse or unmarried child. Family members often are eligible for survivor benefits when a retired worker dies. Additionally, spouses receive a one-time payment of $255 if they lived with the deceased at the time of death, or if they were receiving Social Security benefits based on the earning records of the deceased. In cases where there is no spouse, children who are eligible for benefits based on the deceased’s work record may collect the one-time payment.

What Is Survivors’ Insurance?

When an eligible family member who has paid Social Security taxes and earned enough “credits” dies, certain family members—including widow(er)s (and divorced widow(er)s), children, and dependent parents—are eligible to collect survivor benefits. The more money an individual earns, the higher the value of his or her survivors’ insurance.

An individual can earn up to 4 credits a year. The younger a person is when he or she dies, the fewer credits needed to obtain survivors’ benefits. No one needs more than 40 credits to be eligible for survivors’ insurance, which means 10 years of working for an employer who participates in the Social Security program and paying Social Security taxes will make an individual eligible. Additionally, any dependent children can get benefits until age 18 if the deceased has six credits in the three years before death.

Here are the conditions for certain types of survivor beneficiaries:

  • Widow(er) who has not remarried before age 60 (If an individual remarries prior to age 60, survivor benefits are not available in most cases.)
    • At any age if caring for children under 16 or disabled children who get benefits
    • If born before 1938, full benefits at age 65 or older or reduced benefits at age 60
    • If born after 1960, full benefits at age 67
    • If widow(er) is disabled, benefits at age 50-60
  • Unmarried children
    • If under age 18
    • If under age 19 and in elementary or secondary school
    • If he or she was disabled before age 22 and remains disabled
    • Under certain conditions adopted children, grandchildren, or stepchildren are also eligible
  • Dependent parents
    • At age 62 or older

Receiving Benefits

A surviving spouse may be able to choose to receive spouse benefits or to receive benefits based on his or her own work record, and should look into both to decide which will provide the highest level of benefits. It should also be noted that these benefits change when an individual is between the ages of 62–70, making it important to reassess the situation frequently. Because the rules are complex and dependent upon individual situations, it is important to talk to a Social Security representative.

Individuals request survivor benefits differently depending upon whether or not they already receive benefits from Social Security. If an individual is not currently receiving benefits from Social Security, he or she should:

  • Immediately apply for survivor benefits by telephone or at a local Social Security office
  • Supply the Social Security Administration with original or certified copies of:
    • Proof of death—notice from the funeral home or a death certificate
    • His or her Social Security number, as well as the deceased’s Social Security number
    • His or her birth certificate
    • His or her marriage certificate if he or she is the widow(er)
    • His or her divorce papers if applying as a divorced spouse
    • The Social Security numbers of all dependent children
    • The most recent W-2 form or federal self-employment tax return of the deceased
    • His or her bank name and account number

If the applicant is already receiving Social Security Benefits, he or she should:

  • Immediately report the death so that benefit payments on the spouse’s record can be changed to survivor benefits
  • Contact a Social Security representative to discuss whether his or her own benefits or survivor benefits will result in larger payments


Survivor benefits are really a portion of the deceased’s basic Social Security benefit. Therefore, there is a limit to the amount of survivor benefits collected by a family, which is usually equal to 150–180 percent of the deceased’s benefit rate. If a family exceeds this, benefits are reduced proportionally. Typically the amount that the beneficiary will receive is:

  • Widow(er) older than 65 years will receive 100 percent
  • Widow(er) aged 60-64 years will receive 71–94 percent
  • Widow(er) with children under age 16 will receive 75 percent
  • Children will receive 75 percent

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