By Andy Markowitz, AARP
When you can apply, what you can receive, and more.
Social Security was conceived as a guaranteed retirement benefit for America’s workers, but it quickly grew to provide for their families as well. Four years after the program’s inception in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation extending benefits to deceased workers’ wives (it was 1939, after all), minor children and, in rare instances, aged parents.
Over the years, survivor benefits became gender neutral and expanded further to cover divorced spouses as well as widowers and widows. Today they account for about 1 in 11 Social Security recipients, providing monthly payments to more than 5.8 million people.
These payments, calculated on the basis of the late loved one’s lifetime earnings, offer a crucial measure of financial protection in the aftermath of loss. Here are 10 key things spouses should know about Social Security survivor benefits.
1. You become eligible at age 60 … usually.
In most cases the widow or widower of a deceased worker can begin collecting a survivor benefit as early as age 60 (although the monthly payment increases if you wait — see number 4).
There are circumstances, however, in which you can start sooner. Surviving spouses may be able to begin drawing benefits at age 50 if they’re disabled, and at any age if caring for a child of the late beneficiary who is younger than 16 or is disabled and entitled to childhood Social Security benefits on that basis.
2. There’s no time limit to claim them.
You don’t have to apply for survivor benefits within a set time after your partner’s passing or at your earliest eligibility age. In most situations you can decide when to claim them, or whether to claim them, in a way that best serves your financial situation.
You should, though, make sure the death is reported to Social Security as soon as possible. Often this can be done through a funeral home, but you can also report it directly to Social Security by calling the agency’s national phone line (800-772-1213) or contacting your local office.
Reporting may also trigger a onetime, $255 death benefit for a surviving spouse, but that payment does not affect survivor benefits.
3. Your mate didn’t have to have been getting benefits.
You can collect survivor benefits even if your spouse hadn’t yet claimed Social Security at the time of death.
In this case, survivor benefits will typically be based on the late spouse’s full retirement benefit — the amount they would have been entitled to collect from Social Security had they filed at full retirement age, or FRA (at least 66 years and 4 months for people born in 1956, and gradually rising to age 67).
If the deceased had passed FRA without claiming Social Security, the survivor benefit will be boosted to reflect the delayed retirement credits they would have earned for putting off filing.
4. You don’t automatically get your late spouse’s whole benefit.
Widows and widowers are entitled to 100 percent of their late spouse’s Social Security benefit if they claim survivor benefits at their own full retirement age. FRA differs for survivor benefits; it’s currently 66 but will rise in steps to 67 over the next several years.
What happens if you file earlier? At 60, you can collect 71.5 percent of what your late spouse was getting each month from Social Security (or would have been entitled to get if they died before claiming). The proportion grows incrementally for each month you delay filing until your FRA. Any reduction for taking benefits early remains in effect permanently.
You also get 71.5 percent if you claim benefits in your 50s as a disabled surviving spouse. For people younger than 60 who claim survivor benefits on the basis of caring for the deceased’s children, the proportion is fixed at 75 percent.
If you have any questions about the survivor benefit to which you’re entitled, contact Social Security.
5. You can’t apply online.
You can only file for survivor benefits in person at a Social Security field office or by phone (call 800-772-1213 or contact your local office). Unlike with retirement and disability benefits, there’s no online application process.
If you were already receiving spousal benefits before your partner’s passing, Social Security will automatically convert them to survivor benefits once it is notified of the death.
6. You can’t collect both a survivor benefit and a retirement benefit.
Social Security doesn’t add benefits together. If you’re entitled to two types of payments — as both a retiree and a survivor of one, for example — Social Security determines which payment is higher and sends you that amount.
By the same token, if you’re, sadly, twice widowed, you can’t collect survivor benefits on the earnings records of both late spouses. You’ll get whichever one is higher — unless your own retirement benefit is bigger still, in which case you’ll get that.
7. But you can switch from one to the other.
Retirement and spousal benefits are usually subject to a rule called deemed filing: When you claim one, you’re deemed to be simultaneously claiming the other if you’re eligible for both.
That’s not the case with survivor benefits. If you’re not yet receiving any Social Security, you can apply for both that and survivor benefits at the same time (in which case, you’d get the larger of the two benefit amounts) — but you don’t have to, and that can provide some flexibility in financial planning.
Say your late spouse earned considerably more than you during their lifetime. In this case, you might consider taking your retirement benefit first, to provide some Social Security income, and wait until your FRA to claim the larger survivor benefit in full. Or vice versa, if your retirement benefit would be bigger. Talk to a financial adviser or Social Security representative to assess your benefit options.
8. Divorce isn’t disqualifying.
If you were married to someone for at least 10 years before splitting up, you may be able to collect survivor benefits on your former spouse’s earnings record when your ex has died. The rules on age and payment amounts are the same for a divorced spouse as for a widow or widower.
Receiving benefits as a surviving ex-spouse has no effect on survivor benefits paid to the widow or widower and vice versa. If both filed at FRA, for example, both would be eligible to receive 100 percent of the late worker’s benefit amount.
9. But remarriage can be disqualifying.
If you remarry before turning age 60 (50 if disabled), you forfeit eligibility for survivor benefits on a prior spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) earnings record. You can regain eligibility if the later marriage ends due to divorce or death.
Remarrying after that age has no impact on eligibility for survivor benefits stemming from a previous marriage.
10. Your kids may be able to get survivor benefits too.
The children of deceased workers may be able to collect survivor benefits of up to 75 percent of what their late parent was getting (or would have been entitled to get) from Social Security. Nearly 2 million children were doing so as of July 2022.
Sons and daughters can get survivor benefits if they are unmarried and under age 18, slightly older but still attending elementary or secondary school full time (eligibility ends upon high school graduation or age 19 years and 2 months, whichever comes first) or disabled due to a condition that occurred before age 22. Stepchildren who meet these criteria may also qualify in some situations.
When you apply on behalf of a child, you’ll need to show proof of their relationship to the deceased, such as a birth certificate or adoption record.