Most people think of Social Security benefits as funds for retirement. But there is much more to Social Security than that. It pays benefits when a worker becomes disabled and it also pays benefits to eligible surviving spouses.
Social Security Credits
When you work and are paying Social Security taxes, you are building up credits towards Social Security benefits. In 2012, you get one credit for every $1,130 you earn from wages or self-employment, with a maximum of four credits per year. The number of credits required to provide survivor benefits is based on your age at time of death. A younger person requires fewer credits for the spouse to receive survivor benefits.
Because the benefits are paid on your work record, it makes no difference if your spouse worked or not. However, there are several age-related criteria for claiming benefits. A widow or widower can apply to receive full Social Security benefits when he or she reaches full retirement age. If application is made at age 60, your spouse may be able to receive reduced benefits. Benefits can start at age 50 for a disabled spouse. If you have a child under the age of 16, or disabled, who is eligible for survivor benefits and is under the care of your spouse, your spouse may apply for benefits at any age.
If you were at full retirement age and collecting your full Social Security benefit when you died, your surviving spouse would receive that benefit if she waited until she was at full retirement age to collect it. If you were not collecting benefits yet, and your spouse waited until she was at full retirement age, she would also receive 100 percent of your Social Security benefit.
If you die while receiving reduced benefits, such as electing to take Social Security before full retirement age, the survivor’s benefit will be based on that reduced amount. Additionally, reduced benefits will be made if the widow or widower claims survivor’s benefits between the ages of 60 and full retirement age or is disabled and between the ages of 50 through 59.
Applying for Benefits
Your spouse should notify Social Security as soon as possible after your death. Your widow or widower will need a copy of your death certificate and your Social Security number. She will also need her own Social Security number, her birth certificate, marriage certificate or divorce papers -- based upon the circumstances -- and information on income for the current year, such as a tax return. Because benefits are paid from the time your spouse applies, it is important that the application be made as soon as possible after your death.