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Social Security is usually thought of as something we pay into during our working years, then rewards us with monthly payments in retirement. What's less commonly known is Social Security pays benefits in other situations, such as for the disabled or those without income or resources. Social Security survivors benefits are monthly payments paid to eligible family members if their deceased loved one paid enough into Social Security during their lifetime.
What Are Social Security Survivors Benefits?
When someone who helps support their family passes away, it can leave the loved ones left behind in a financial crisis. Social Security survivors benefits are intended to help provide a financial cushion beyond life insurance and savings. Widows and widowers, along with some divorced spouses, surviving children and dependent parents, may be eligible for these payments.
Who Is Eligible for Social Security Survivors Benefits?
To be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits, your deceased loved one must have earned a minimum number of Social Security "credits" throughout their working life. Anyone who has worked for 10 years is eligible to provide full survivors benefits.
Younger people with fewer work credits may leave some survivor benefits, though not the full amount. Benefits are based on the deceased person's earnings, so the more a person worked and paid into Social Security, the larger the survivors benefits will be.
To receive survivors benefits from Social Security, you need to fall into certain categories, and each has detailed restrictions. Here are some of the basic requirements for each group:
- Can receive reduced benefits starting at age 60 if they're willing to take a reduced amount; if they qualify for retirement benefits themselves, they can move their own retirement benefit up to age 62
- Can receive full benefits at age 50 if they also have a disability, and the disability started before or within seven years of the spouse's death
- Can receive full benefits at any age if they haven't remarried and take care of their surviving child who's under age 16 or who has a disability and receives child benefits (remarriage won't affect eligibility once they're age 60, or age 50 if they're disabled)
If the spouse was already receiving spousal retirement benefits, this automatically converts to survivors benefits once Social Security learns of the death (the funeral home will likely report it, but the spouse can also take this step).
If the spouse was already receiving their own Social Security retirement benefits, they can only apply for surviving spouse benefits if it would be larger than their own retirement benefits.
Surviving Divorced Spouses
- Can receive the same benefits as a surviving spouse if the marriage lasted 10 years or more (it won't affect what other survivors receive)
- Can receive full benefits regardless of length of marriage if they're caring for their ex's natural or legally adopted child who's under age 16 and has a disability (though this can impact what other survivors receive)
- Can receive survivors benefits if they're unmarried and under 18 (or up to age 19 if they're attending secondary school full time)
- Can receive benefits at any age if they have a disability that started before they turned 22
- In some cases, stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and adopted children might be eligible
- Can receive survivors benefits if they're at least 62 years old and received at least half of their support from their working child
- They're not eligible if they qualify for retirement benefits of a higher amount, or if they remarry after their adult child dies, though there can be exceptions for the latter
- In some cases, stepparents or adoptive parents can be eligible if they gained parental rights before the deceased turned 16 years old
How Much Are Social Security Survivors Benefits?
The amount survivors are able to receive depends on the average lifetime earnings of the deceased. The more they earned and paid into Social Security over their life, the higher the benefits will be for their family.
If you look up your Social Security statement on the agency's website, SSA.gov, it will show if your family is eligible for survivors benefits and how much each type of relative would receive should you pass away.
The amount survivors can receive each month is based on a percentage of the deceased worker's basic benefit amount. Typically, they are:
- For a surviving spouse who's at least full retirement age: 100%
- For a surviving spouse who's 60 or older but not yet full retirement age: Between 71.5% and 99%
- For a surviving spouse of any age with a child under 16: 75%
- For a child under 18 (or 19 if in secondary school or any age with a disability): 75%
- For a dependent parent age 62 or older: 82.5% for one parent or 75% to each parent if two surviving parents
In addition to the ongoing monthly payment, a surviving spouse or child may be eligible for a one-time lump sum death payment of $255.
Be aware that there is a maximum amount that surviving family members can receive after someone dies. While it can vary, the maximum family amount is typically between 150% and 180% of the deceased's basic benefit rate. However, benefits paid to surviving divorced spouses due to age or disability don't count toward this. If your family does reach the maximum, the benefits are reduced proportionately.
How to Apply for Survivors Benefits
While you can apply online for Social Security retirement benefits, online applications aren't allowed for survivors benefits. Instead, you need to contact or visit your local Social Security Office or reach them by phone.
If you're applying and not currently receiving any Social Security benefits, you'll need to provide the agency with information and documents related to your claim. This often includes proof of your loved one's death, your Social Security number and that of the deceased, your birth and marriage certificate, the deceased's last tax return and your bank account information for benefits. You can still submit an application if you can't find everything—the Social Security Administration will help you locate any missing information.
Are Social Security Survivors Benefits Taxable?
Whether you pay taxes on your Social Security benefits depends on your combined income, including wages, dividends, interest and other taxable income. However, you'll never pay income tax on more than 85% of survivors benefits.
If you file your federal tax return as an individual:
- Those with combined income between $25,000 and $34,000 might owe taxes on up to 50% of survivors benefits
- Those with combined income exceeding $34,000 might pay taxes on up to 85% of survivors benefits
If you file your federal tax return as a joint return:
- Those who, with their spouses, have combined income between $32,000 and $44,000 might owe taxes on up to 50% of survivors benefits
- Those who, with their spouses, have combined income exceeding $44,000 might pay taxes on up to 85% of survivors benefits
If you're married and file separately, you'll likely still owe taxes on your benefits. Children typically don't receive enough other income to have their benefits taxed. It may be taxed in some cases; the IRS has detailed guidelines.
Protect Your Benefits
While Social Security benefits can be a financial lifeline, they can also be vulnerable to fraud. Some criminals use stolen Social Security numbers to commit identity theft and open unauthorized accounts, while others apply for Social Security benefits or steal benefits in someone else's name.
Throughout this process, keep Social Security numbers secure and remain vigilant. According to the Social Security Administration, they usually contact beneficiaries through mailed letters, or occasionally, phone calls or home visits where someone immediately shows identification.
If someone contacts you saying they're with Social Security, especially if out of the blue, the administration recommends calling their national office to find out if it's legitimate or a potential Social Security scam. They also state that their employees will never threaten someone or promise benefit increases or approvals in exchange for money or personal information. If you have received contact that seems suspicious, don't provide any money or information, end the communication and contact the administration.