Understanding Social Security Survivor Benefits

A mother and daughter discussing social security survivor benefits

The concept of Social Security benefits is commonly associated with the financial safety net Americans look forward to when they retire. But in many cases, even after the original beneficiary has passed away, family members can also continue to benefit from their Social Security through survivor benefits. 

The following is a general overview of Social Security survivor benefits.   

What Are Survivor Benefits? 

Survivor benefit amounts are based on the amount of Social Security benefits the deceased was receiving at the time of death or was entitled to receive in the future. As with primary benefits, the worker must have earned sufficient Social Security credits over their career for their beneficiaries to be eligible for survivor benefits. The relationship to the deceased and the survivor’s age also figure into the amount of survivor benefits that will be paid out. 

Who Is Eligible for Social Security Survivor Benefits? 

Eligibility for survivor benefits varies depending on the relationship to the deceased, the survivor’s age, and other factors like how much social security the surviving spouse is already collecting. Beneficiaries can include: 

  • The surviving spouse  
  • Divorced spouses whose marriage to the deceased lasted more than ten years 
  • Unmarried children 
  • Financially dependent parent(s) aged 62 and older 

The following are more detailed explanations of qualifications and benefit payout amounts for each beneficiary category. 

Spouse and Ex-spouse Eligibility and Benefit Allocations 

Whether you were still married at the time of the beneficiary’s death or are an eligible former spouse, you may begin collecting survivor benefits at age 60. Disabled beneficiaries can begin at age 50. Eligible spousal beneficiaries can expect to receive payments ranging from 71.5% to 100% of their late spouse’s Social Security benefit, depending on the survivor’s age.  To receive 100 percent of the benefit, you must be at full retirement age (66 years) at the time of the primary account holder’s death. 

Surviving Spouses and Ex-Spouses will receive survivor benefits for as long as they live unless they already collect (or begin collecting) a retirement benefit equal to or higher than the survivor benefit. 

Ex-Spouse Eligibility 

To be eligible for survivor benefits as a former spouse, you must have been married to the deceased for over ten years. You also cannot be currently remarried. You can still be eligible if you were married and divorced in the interim. 

Spouses Who Are Caretakers of Dependent Children 

There is no minimum age if you’re a spouse or ex-spouse caring for a child or dependent grandchild of the deceased under the age of 16 or disabled. In this case, the survivor benefit will be 75 percent of the deceased’s Social Security payment. 

In this case, survivor benefits would end if the spouse or ex-spouse: 

  • Is no longer caring for that child.
  • Gets remarried. Exceptions apply if the spouse or ex-spouse marries someone receiving certain Social Security benefits. 
  • Becomes entitled to benefits designated for widows or widowers. 
  • Retirement benefit exceeds any survivor benefit. 

Survivor Benefits for Unmarried Children 

Unmarried minor children can collect 75% of a late parent’s benefit. Benefits generally stop when the child turns 18 or marries.  

The following are special circumstances in which older children can collect survivor benefits: 

  • Children between the ages of 18 and 19 years and two months who are full-time high school students are also eligible to collect until the age of 19 and two months. 
  • Children 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22 are also eligible to collect. The benefits will not end until they marry. 

Survivor Benefits for Dependent Parents 

Parents financially dependent on the deceased can collect benefits once they turn 62. The deceased worker must have provided at least half of the parent’s income. One parent can expect 82.5% of the deceased’s benefit. Two parents could collect 75% percent each.  

What is the Family Maximum Benefit? 

When Survivor benefits are paid to multiple members of one family, Social Security places a cap on how much they will pay out on a single deceased worker’s earning record. Social Security calculates the deceased’s monthly benefit if claimed at full retirement age to determine the cap. If family members’ collective survivor benefits exceed the maximum, their payments will be reduced proportionally to meet the cap. 

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