Social Security Survivors Benefits: 9 Important Facts You Must Know

Discover the vital facts about survivor benefits and secure your family's financial future.

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Updated June 6, 2024
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If an individual who spent a lifetime contributing to the Social Security fund passes away, their surviving family members may qualify to receive a portion of their parent’s, spouse’s, grandparent’s, or child’s Social Security benefits.

However, surviving beneficiaries don’t start receiving survivors benefits automatically. Instead, you’ll need to apply for the benefits in the event of a loved one’s death.

If you're in a situation where you need to supplement your income with survivors benefits, we'll explain what they are, how to apply, and how to qualify after a Social Security wage earner’s death.

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A death must be reported to the Social Security office before you can receive benefits

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Before you can start receiving survivors benefits, you’ll need to notify the Social Security Administration of the primary beneficiary’s death. If you’re working with a funeral director, they'll likely notify the SSA for you, but you’ll want to double-check to make sure.

If the funeral home doesn’t notify the SSA, you’ll need to do it yourself. Deaths can't be reported online, so you'll need to call the Social Security office at 1-800-772-1213 (or TTY 1-800-325-0778) to get started.

Surviving spouses may receive a one-time lump-sum payment

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If you were married to and living with the deceased at the time of their death, you might qualify to receive a one-time lump-sum death payment, or LSDP, from the Social Security Administration. The one-time payment totals $255.

A child of the deceased might qualify to receive the LSDP if there isn’t a surviving spouse to receive the payment.

A surviving spouse age 60 or older may also receive ongoing monthly benefits

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In addition to a one-time payment, surviving spouses might also receive an ongoing monthly Social Security benefit based on their deceased spouse’s work record. 

Typically, you’ll qualify for this survivors benefit if you’re age 60 or older, though disabled spouses may start receiving monthly benefits at age 50.

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Spouses are usually disqualified if they remarry before age 60

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If you’re applying for survivors benefits, this disqualification may not apply to you. Still, it’s worth knowing that if you get remarried before you turn 60, you won’t qualify for survivors benefits based on your status as a widow or widower.

However, if you get remarried after you turn 60, you’ll still be eligible to receive survivors benefits. You might opt to receive spousal benefits instead based on your new partner’s earnings since that number could be higher.

Surviving children or parents may also be eligible

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Some surviving children may also be eligible to receive monthly benefits based on their parent’s work record. The child must be unmarried to qualify and younger than age 18 (or age 19 if they’re still attending secondary or elementary school). 

Disabled children who are older than age 18 will qualify for benefits, but only if their disability started before they turned 22.

Surviving parents can be eligible for monthly survivors benefits if they relied on the deceased beneficiary for at least half of their financial support. Surviving parents must also be at least age 62 to qualify.

Survivors receive a percentage of the wage-earner’s benefit based on their age and relationship

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The more years the deceased beneficiary worked and earned Social Security wages, the higher their monthly benefits payment would be. As a survivor, you’ll receive a set percentage of that benefit amount based on your age and relationship with the deceased.

Widows and widowers aged 60 or older but haven’t yet reached their full retirement age will receive anywhere from 71% to 99% of their spouse’s benefits. Those who have reached full retirement age typically qualify for 100% of their spouse’s benefits.

Surviving children who qualify will receive 75% of the benefit. Additionally, widows or widowers raising a child (age 16 or younger) will receive 75% of their spouse’s benefit regardless of age.

Ex-spouses might qualify for survivors benefits as well

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In some cases, you might qualify to receive survivors benefits if your ex-spouse passes away. You must have been married for 10 consecutive years to qualify. 

Otherwise, the same rules apply to an ex-spouse as to a widow or widower: You’ll receive a payment based mainly on your current age.

Additionally, as with a widow or widower, ex-spouses can receive survivors benefits no matter their age or the length of their marriage if they’re raising their and the deceased’s biological or adopted child. 

The child must either be disabled or under age 16 for the ex-spouse to qualify for benefits.

There is a maximum benefit amount that can be paid to surviving family members

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While many people can qualify for survivors benefits, the Social Security Administration will only pay a certain percentage of the deceased individual’s benefits. Typically, that limit is anywhere from 150% to 180% of the benefit.

However, any payments being made to a surviving ex-spouse won’t count toward the 150% to 180% limit unless that surviving ex-spouse is also a parent to the deceased’s biological or adopted child under age 16. 

In the latter case, the benefit payment will count toward the family's maximum benefit cap.

If you’re already receiving benefits, it’s still worth reporting the death and applying for benefits

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If you’ve reached retirement age, you might already be receiving Social Security benefits based on your own work record. 

However, if your deceased spouse worked longer than you did or earned higher wages, your Social Security benefit might be higher if you receive survivors benefits instead.

In that case, the SSA will combine your survivors benefit amount with your current Social Security benefit to ensure you receive whichever payment is higher.

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Bottom line

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Nothing can take away the pain of losing a spouse. But the financial challenges that come from losing a wage-earning member of your household can be offset somewhat by survivors benefits.

Plus, if you qualify for survivors benefits, make sure you apply: Planning for retirement — whether you retire early, late, or exactly on time — requires you to count every cent.

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Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has spent a decade writing for and about small businesses. She specializes in all things finance and has written for publications like G2 and SmallBizDaily. When she's not writing for work at her desk, you can usually find her writing for pleasure near large bodies of water.