Social Security is more than a retirement program. It’s also a safety net for people who die and leave their spouse short one income. Social Security describes it as "like life insurance that you didn’t have to pay for.” You don’t need to be older to collect Social Security survivor benefits if you have children under 16 or are disabled, and worked for a year-and-a-half in the three years before your spouse died. Also, if you, as a widow or widower, wait until full retirement age to start collecting your Social Security spousal death benefits. No matter how young your spouse was when she died, you’ll get the most benefit.
Workers can feel comfortable knowing they’ll leave surviving family members with survivors' benefits. This happens because each of us, during our working lives, pays Social Security insurance, usually through our employer. In 2018, workers receive one credit for every $1,320 they earn, and you can receive up to four credits per year. So, as long as you’ve made $5,280 in pay, you’ve earned the maximum Social Security credits. To qualify for benefits, you need 40 Social Security credits, which is 10 years. But even if you die before you’ve earned those 40 credits, you will still be able to provide qualifying family members with survivor benefits as long as you have earned at least six credits over the three years before you die.
How Long Does it Take to Receive Survivor Benefits?
You will receive survivor benefits as long as you live. When a spouse dies, as the surviving spouse, you are entitled to Social Security widow benefits for the remainder of your life. But how much you receive is dependent on the age you begin collecting retirement benefits, as well as your spouse’s work record. To get the most benefit, your spouse would have needed to work for 10 years for employers who contribute to Social Security.
If you are receiving benefits because you have children under 16 and you meet the year-and-a-half work requirement, you can choose to get retirement benefits now or later. Your children, however, will receive benefits up until age 18, unless they are still in high school at age 18. In that case, the cap is your child’s 19th birthday or high school graduation, whichever comes first.
When to Start Collecting
Most of us think we’ll start collecting Social Security benefits when we retire, either at 62, 67 or later. If you live long enough, that’s when you and your spouse, if you have one, will start collecting your Social Security checks. But Social Security is a complex program. If you decide to retire at 62, you’ll collect up to 30 percent less than if you waited until full retirement age. Full retirement age is 66 or 67, depending on when you were born. Your Social Security retirement benefits will continue until you die.
Survivor benefits are different, however. These are paid from Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivor’s Insurance Trust Fund. About 10 percent of the money paid by the Social Security Administration is paid to people receiving survivor benefits, which is just over 6 million Americans. In April 2018, the average monthly benefit amount was $1,153. The SSA says one in eight of 20-year-olds today will die before reaching the full retirement age of 67. About 96 percent of those will be able to leave survivor benefits, mostly to a spouse and young children.
If you as the surviving spouse are younger than 60 when your spouse dies, and the two of you have a child under 16, you can collect benefits starting when your spouse dies, as long as you do not remarry. If you do not have young children when your spouse dies, you can start collecting at age 60.
If your spouse dies when you are at least 60, you qualify as an aged widow or widower. You collect upon your spouse’s death, and you will collect those benefits until you die. If you and your spouse are already collecting Social Security, you will begin receiving your spouse’s Social Security benefit. But do not cash a check made out to your deceased spouse in the month your spouse dies or later. That check or checks must be returned.
If you as the surviving spouse are disabled, you can qualify for benefits beginning at age 50. Those benefits then convert to the aged widow or widower benefits when you turn 65, and continue until you die.
Surviving children receive Social Security benefits upon a parent’s death, as long as you are under 18, still in high school and under 19, or a disabled adult under 22. You will collect until you turn 18, or complete high school by age 19.
In some cases, parents can collect an adult child’s Social Security survivor benefits. If a parent outlives you, you can designate one or both of your parents along with your spouse and surviving children, if applicable. Those benefits will begin upon the worker’s death and end when the parent dies. There is a family maximum, however, and benefits paid to a surviving spouse, parents and children all count toward that family maximum.
How Much to Get
The survivor benefits you leave behind will not be cut short if you die young. As long as you put in the required work units, your survivor or survivors will collect a benefit that will be calculated on what your monthly benefit would have been at your full retirement age.
If you are the widow or widower, and if you do not have young children when your spouse dies, you can start taking benefits at age 60. You will receive 28.5 percent less than if you decided to wait to collect when you reach full retirement age. You have to decide if you’d rather begin collecting early or wait six-to-seven more years.
If you are a widow or widower who begins collecting when your children are under 16, you will receive 75 percent of your spouse’s full benefit. If you die and leave your benefits to your parents, both parents can collect 75 percent of your benefits each, or if only one is still alive, that parent will receive 82.5 percent of your benefits.
Children are eligible to receive 75 percent of their deceased parent’s full benefits. The maximum survivor benefits your family can receive, however, ranges between 150 percent and 180 percent of your full retirement benefits. If your parents are also receiving benefits, their benefits also count toward your family maximum.
What About Divorced Spouses?
You could claim survivor benefits from a former spouse if you were married for at least 10 years, as long as you meet the other criteria for survivors. Even if your former spouse had remarried, you wouldn’t prevent your former spouse’s current family from also getting benefits if they qualify. Former spouses get the same amount of benefits current survivors receive, anywhere from 71.5-to-99 percent of full benefits.
How to Start Collecting
You as the survivor will need to get in touch with the Social Security office as soon as possible, to begin collecting the benefits. You can’t apply online. The only way to apply for survivor benefits is over the phone or in person at a Social Security office. If you decide to go in person, it’s best to make an appointment. You’ll need proof of death or a death certificate, you and your spouse’s Social Security numbers, your birth certificate, your marriage certificate if you were married and divorce papers if necessary. You’ll also need the Social Security numbers and birth certificates of your children, and the most recent W2 or tax return of your deceased spouse.
There is also a lump-sum death payment to eligible surviving spouses of $255 if you live in the same house as your deceased spouse. If there’s no spouse eligible for that payment, qualifying children can receive this benefit. You have up to two years to claim this money.
- Investopedia: When Do Social Security Benefits Start and End?
- Motley Fool: Social Security: The Survivor Benefit Simplified
- Social Security: Benefits Planner: Survivors -- If You Are the Survivor
- Motley Fool: Social Security Survivor Benefits: What You Need to Know
- Social Security Administration: Survivors Benefits
Karen Gardner is a former feature editor and writer and is now a freelance writer. She looks forward to doing her family's taxes each year, and likes to write about home finances and money subjects for the rest of us.