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When your spouse dies do you get their Social Security benefits?

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Maskot/Getty Images/Maskot

After losing a spouse, getting your financial affairs in order crowds against many other new priorities—honoring their memory, finding support systems and focusing on your own healing.

Figuring out benefits such as Social Security can feel overwhelming. When your spouse dies, do you get their Social Security? Depending on your situation, survivor benefits can play a vital role in your long-term financial plan. Here's what to know about what benefits you may be entitled to and how to apply.

Who qualifies for Social Security survivor benefits?

Survivor benefits offer financial support for surviving spouses and dependents after the worker passes away. You may be entitled to survivor benefits if you meet either of the below criteria:

  • You are a surviving spouse age 60 or older (or age 50 or older with a disability that occurred within seven years of your spouse's death).
  • You are the surviving spouse of any age who is caring for the deceased worker's child. The child must be under age 16 or have a disability.

In most cases, if you were married to the deceased for at least nine months, you can qualify for survivor benefits. There is no length of marriage requirement if the death was accidental or occurred during US military duty. Remarrying after age 60 will not impact survivor benefits. However, if you remarry before age 60, you cannot receive survivor benefits; if that marriage ends, you can reinstate your survivor benefits.

In addition to spouses, other family members may qualify for survivor benefits, including children, grandchildren, parents and even divorced spouses. The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides a more complete list of who qualifies.

How much Social Security does the surviving spouse receive?

The benefit a surviving spouse receives depends on two factors: the age of the deceased and the age of the survivor.

How a deceased spouse's age affects the Social Security retirement benefit

When a spouse passes, the SSA pays an eligible surviving spouse a percentage of the deceased's retirement benefits, depending on the deceased's age:

  • If the deceased did not reach full retirement age, the surviving spouse can receive 100% of the retirement benefit.
  • If the deceased reached retirement age, the surviving spouse can receive whatever the deceased was entitled to in the month of their death.
  • Similarly, if the deceased already received monthly payments, the surviving spouse is entitled to what they received in the month of their death.

How a surviving spouse's age affects Social Security retirement benefits

  • As a surviving spouse, you're entitled to 100% of the deceased's benefits once you reach full retirement age. The full retirement age can differ based on the type of benefit. See this chart for the survivor's full retirement age.
  • If you're younger than full retirement age but at least age 60 (or age 50 with a disability), you are entitled to a reduced benefit (71½% to 99%, depending on your age).

This can be a complicated time for you as well as your spouse's other loved ones, and you may find yourself caring for others while you are still grieving. Regardless of your age, caring for the deceased's child (under age 16 or disabled) may entitle you to 75% of the deceased's benefits.

If several family members are eligible for benefits, you may come close to the family maximum benefit. Exceeding the family maximum will reduce benefit payments. Your benefit also may be reduced even further if you haven't reached retirement age and you're still working. The Social Security earnings limit for 2023 is $21,240.

What is the Social Security lump sum death benefit?

In addition to a monthly payment, most surviving spouses are entitled to a death benefit. The death benefit is a lump sum payment of $255. To qualify, you must have lived with the deceased when they died. However, even if you lived apart when your spouse died, you might still be eligible for the death benefit if you already receive spousal benefits.

Survivor benefits are usually paid for life, so it's worth taking the time to estimate your monthly amount. Consider using a benefits calculator to get an initial estimate of your benefit amount.

If your spouse dies, do you get both Social Security benefits?

You cannot claim your deceased spouse's benefits in addition to your own retirement benefits. Social Security only will pay one—survivor or retirement. If you qualify for both survivor and retirement benefits, you will receive whichever amount is higher. This means that if you already receive retirement benefits, you can't apply for survivor benefits if they're less than your retirement benefits.

Depending on your situation, it may work in your favor to postpone applying for retirement, giving those benefits the potential for growth while you receive survivor benefits. Ultimately, every case is different. Your local Thrivent financial advisor can provide guidance on which benefit to apply for and when.

How do you apply for survivor benefits?

If you already receive spousal benefits, the SSA will automatically switch you to survivor benefits upon receiving proof of death. Otherwise, you'll have to apply to begin receiving survivor benefits.

Because of the complexity of determining eligibility and the benefit amount, the SSA does not allow online applications. You can call to apply over the phone or schedule an in-person appointment at your local SSA office.

The SSA may request several documents when you apply. A few examples include:

  • Proof of death; either from the funeral home or a death certificate
  • Your and your deceased spouse's Social Security numbers
  • Marriage certificate
  • Your late spouse's most recent W2 forms or federal tax return
  • Bank information if setting up direct deposit

See what survivor benefits you're entitled to

After losing a spouse, prioritize finding support for yourself first. There may be certain financial questions that you don't yet have the mental and emotional space to work through, so consider talking to your local Social Security representative about the benefits you're entitled to. Depending on your situation, survivor benefits can play a significant supporting role in your financial journey.

Connect with your Thrivent financial advisor to discuss your benefits and how they fit into your broader financial strategy.

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

Thrivent and its financial advisors and professionals do not provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Consult your attorney or tax professional.