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Who is eligible for survivors benefits?

Family members eligible for Social Security survivors benefits include a surviving spouse, dependent children and parents.

Social security widows benefits for an ex-spouse

If you are the surviving ex-spouse of the deceased, you may be eligible for a survivors benefit if your marriage lasted at least 10 years or you are caring for your ex-spouse's child who is under age 16 or disabled. If your own Social Security benefit is greater than the survivors benefit from an ex-spouse, you can switch to your own benefit as early as age 62.

Beware of the “blackout period”

A surviving spouse is eligible for a survivors benefit if they are the caregiver of the deceased spouse's child who is under the age of 16. Once that child reaches age 16, their survivors benefit stops unless the widow(er) is age 60 or older. The period commencing when their benefit stops until when it can resume for them at age 60 is known as the “blackout period” for these benefits.

How much is the survivors benefit?

There is a one-time lump-sum death benefit of $255 available to a surviving spouse who was living with their spouse at the time of their death. A surviving spouse can also receive a benefit if they were drawing a Social Security benefit based upon the deceased's earnings. If there is not a surviving spouse, this lump-sum payment is made to a child.

  • A surviving spouse can receive 100% of their deceased spouse's benefit if they have reached their own full retirement age (FRA) when they claim the survivors benefit. Whether a surviving spouse claims this benefit or sticks with their own benefit depends upon which is larger.
  • A widow or widower can claim a survivors benefit as early as age 60. The benefit amount is reduced for ages less than FRA. The amount varies between 71.5% and 99%. The closer they are to FRA, the greater the amount of the benefit.
  • For a surviving spouse who is aged 50 to 59 and disabled, they can receive 71.5% of their deceased spouse's benefit.
  • A widow or widower who is caring for a child who is age 16 or younger can receive 75% of the deceased spouse's benefit.

In addition, other survivors, including the following, can also get benefits.

  • A child who is age 18 or under (or who is 19 or under and still in elementary or high school) can receive 75% of their deceased parent's benefit.
  • Dependent parents can receive a benefit for a deceased child if they are at least 62 years old.
    • One dependent parent can receive 82.5%.
    • Two surviving parents can each receive 75%.

How are benefits calculated?

If you and your late spouse were both claiming Social Security benefits at the time of their death, then the larger of the two benefits becomes your survivors benefit.

If neither you nor your deceased spouse had started your benefits at the time of their death, then the surviving spouse can receive 100% of the deceased spouse's benefit if they wait until their own FRA. They can claim a benefit as early as age 60, but the benefit amount is less than 100% of the possible amount as mentioned above.

How to maximize your benefits

There are a number of factors that determine the level of your benefit as a surviving spouse. Whether or not the deceased spouse had commenced collecting their benefit prior to their death is a key consideration.

  • If you were both claiming your benefits at the time of your spouse's death, you can receive the larger amount between your benefit and theirs.
  • You should plan when each spouse should initially claim their Social Security benefits. In many cases, it makes sense for at least one spouse to wait as long as possible to claim their benefit so as to maximize the potential survivors benefit for the other spouse. This might entail waiting until they reach their FRA or even age 70 when their initial benefit reaches its highest level.
  • If a surviving spouse's own benefit will ultimately be higher than their survivors benefit, they can take the survivors benefit as early as age 60 and then switch to their own benefit at any point from age 62 to age 70.

How to claim survivors benefits

In order to claim survivors benefits as a surviving spouse, surviving ex-spouse, dependent child, or other eligible family members, Social Security must be notified of the deceased person's death. This cannot be done online. You should contact Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 to request an appointment to get the process started.

As a surviving spouse, if you applied for your own Social Security benefit less than 12 months prior to the death of your spouse, you have the option to withdraw this application and apply for survivors benefits if this is more advantageous. You retain the option to reapply for your own benefit at a later time when your own benefit is higher than the survivors benefit.

Documents you need for applying

If you are applying for survivors benefits as a surviving spouse, you typically need to provide the following documentation:

  • A death certificate
  • Your birth certificate or other proof of your date of birth
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or legal alien status
  • U.S. military discharge papers if you served prior to 1968
  • SSA Forms 3368 and 827 if you are applying for disability benefits as a survivor
  • W-2 form(s), plus a tax return if you were self-employed the prior year
  • A final divorce decree if applying as a surviving divorced spouse
  • A marriage certificate for your marriage to the deceased

You may have to answer other questions as well.

There will be other documentation required in the case of a minor child or dependent parent applying for survivors benefits.

The bottom line

Widows and widowers have a number of options in terms of receiving Social Security survivors benefits. There are a number of planning issues surrounding this situation, including strategies for couples to use in initially claiming their respective Social Security benefits.

Survivors benefits are also available for divorced surviving spouses, dependent children and dependent parents in some cases. It can pay to seek the advice of a financial advisor knowledgeable about Social Security issues to determine the best course of action.

About the Author

Roger Wohlner

Roger Wohlner

Freelance Contributor

Roger Wohlner is an experienced financial advisor, finance blogger and freelance writer based in Arlington Heights, Ill. His expertise includes providing financial planning and investment advice to individual clients, 401(k) plan sponsors, foundations and endowments.

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