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Financial planning

How do Social Security survivor benefits work?

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Oliver Rossi/Getty Images

Social Security is known primarily as a financial support for retirees who have paid into the system during their working years. But when someone dies, the program also may provide payments for their dependents. That can be a relief for widows, young children and even parents who have relied on a worker's past income.

How do Social Security survivor benefits work, and how much can you receive? Here's what family members need to know.

Who qualifies for Social Security survivor benefits?

With each paycheck, workers pay Social Security taxes throughout their careers that help fund benefits for retirees; part of these taxes also go toward survivor benefits when a recipient has died and their family members need continued financial support.

Those who may be eligible for survivor benefits include:

Widows and widowers

You may be entitled to 100% of your deceased spouse's basic benefit if you're at full retirement age—that's 67 for those born in 1960 or later —or a reduced benefit starting at age 60. However, those taking care of a child who's disabled or under age 16 may get partial benefits at any age. But those benefits will end once the child reaches age 16 or the disablity ends. You can then reapply once you reach age 60 for a reduced benefit.

If you're already receiving benefits based on your spouse's wages, they'll be changed to survivor benefits after you report their death.

Surviving divorced spouses

If you were married for at least 10 years, you may qualify for benefits based on your former spouse's wages. You're eligible for those payments even if you remarry after age 60, or age 50 if you're disabled. The length-of-marriage rule does not apply to those taking care of disabled children or children under age 16. Remarriage before age 60 will terminate the divorced spouse's benefits but not those of the children.

Children

Unmarried children up to the age of 19 if still attending elementary or secondary school also can receive survivor benefits. The benefits also apply to children of any age who incurred a disability before age 22. A worker's stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren or adopted children also may be able to obtain benefits in certain cases.

Parents

The parents of a deceased worker also can receive survivor payments, provided they are at least 62 years of age and depended on their child for at least half of their financial support. In addition, the parent cannot be eligible to receive a retirement benefit higher than the benefit they would receive based on their child's earnings. In most (but not all) cases, a parent loses eligibility if they remarry after their child's death.

Important to note

In addition to the above requirements, eligibility depends on the number of "credits" the deceased had acquired, as well as their age when they passed away. Workers can receive up to four credits in a given year, based on their earnings. For 2022, an individual receives one credit for every $1,510 of wages or income from employment. Workers don't obtain additional credits for income in excess of $6,040 per year.

Generally, the younger a worker is when they pass on, the fewer years they need to have worked for survivor benefits to kick in. The rules vary based on your relationship to the deceased, so you may wish to speak with a claims representative or visit a Social Security office near you for more detailed information.

How much are Social Security survivor benefits?

The Social Security benefit amount is based on the deceased worker's earnings, so it's different for everyone. There are percentage guidelines per eligibility group to establish equity. You can apply these percentages to your loved one's average lifetime earnings to calculate the amount received.

Here is what you may be eligible to receive based on your relationship to the deceased and your age:

  • Widow or widower at full retirement age or older (included divorced spouses): 100% of the deceased worker's benefit amount
  • Widow or widower age 60 or older, below full retirement age: 71.5% to 99% of the worker's benefit amount (though your benefit may be reduced if you work and earn income beyond established limits).
  • Widow or widower with a disability, aged 50 through 59: 71.5% of the worker's benefit amount
  • Widow or widower (of any age) caring for a child under age 16: 75% of the worker's benefit amount
  • A child under age 18 or who has a disability: 75% of the worker's benefit amount
  • Dependent parent(s), age 62 or older: 82.5% (if there's one surviving parent) or 75% each (if two surviving parents)

In addition to the above monthly benefits, a surviving spouse or child may receive a lump sum payment of $255. Typically, this amount is paid to the surviving spouse if they lived in the same house as the worker when they died (although there are certain exceptions). If the surviving spouse is not eligible, the payment may go to a child.

There is a caveat on these family benefits, however: The Social Security Administration imposes a limit on the total monthly amount family members can receive. Typically, that ceiling is between 150% and 180% of the worker's basic benefit rate. Should the family's total benefit exceed the applicable amount, payments are reduced on a pro rata basis.

Applying for Social Security survivor benefits

Generally, benefits aren't retroactive to the date of your loved one's death. Therefore, it's important to make sure a funeral home has reported their passing to the Social Security Administration or that you report it yourself. You can do so by contacting the Social Security office nearest to you.

In order to apply for Social Security survivor benefits, you will need:

  • Proof of death from a funeral home or from a death certificate
  • The Social Security number for both you and the deceased
  • The Social Security number and birth certificate of a dependent child (if applicable)
  • Your marriage certificate (if applying for widow/widower benefits)
  • Your divorce papers (if applying based on a former spouse)
  • The most recent year's W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the deceased worker
  • Your bank's name and your account number (if setting up a direct deposit)

Getting started

You likely aren't thinking about finances in the days, weeks or even months following the death of a loved one. This is why it's valuable to connect with a financial advisor sooner rather than later to see if there are gaps in your retirement plan. Not only can they help you build a comprehensive financial strategy and budget, navigate retirement planning, and manage your investment portfolio, but they also have a general knowledge of Social Security and can remind you of these helpful benefits if the worst were to occur.

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Thrivent financial advisors and professionals have general knowledge of the Social Security tenets. For complete details on your unique situation, contact the Social Security Administration.

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