What You And Your Spouse Need To Know About Social Security Survivor Benefits

By Mark Di Vincenzo. May 7th 2016

When you think of Social Security, you probably think of a big pot of money that goes to retirees. In fact, the Social Security Administration provides retirement benefits to 38 million or so Americans. But you may not know that more than 55 million Americans receive Social Security checks.

Many of those who receive Social Security checks are not retired. They are disabled and are unable to work. And many more are the spouses and children of a Social Security recipient who died.

This article will focus on survivor benefits – how they’re earned and who is eligible to receive them – but first we’ll explain what Social Security is.

What’s Social Security?

Social Security is like a pension for American workers, regardless of where they work. Today, 159 million or so people work and pay Social Security taxes. These taxes pay for the Social Security benefits for those 55 million people who currently receive monthly checks.

But, like many other pensions, Social Security was never meant to be the only source of retirement income. The Social Security Administration says the benefits you receive – or will receive – are meant to replace only about 40 percent of your income after retiring. That’s why we also depend on traditional pension plans and/or 401(k) or IRA accounts or other investments that we can use after we retire.

Depending on when you were born, you can receive full Social Security benefits at 66, at 67 or sometime in between.

What Are Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Social security survivor benefits are basically your Social Security checks that your dependents can receive after you die. However, your surviving dependents do not automatically receive your benefits. You must accrue survivor credits. These credits allow you to pass your Social Security benefits on to your loved ones after you die.

How Do I Get Social Security Survivor Credits?

You earn them. You can earn as many as four credits a year. This year, you earn one credit for every $1,130 of wages you receive. When you have earned $4,520, you have earned your four credits for the year.

According to the Social Security Administration, the number of credits needed to provide benefits for your survivors depends on your age when you die. The younger you are when you die, the less credits you need to accrue to provide benefits to your survivors.

If you die young, your children and your spouse can receive benefits if you have earned as few as six credits in the three years before your death.

Who Is Eligible To Receive Survivor Benefits?

There are four groups of eligible survivors:

Widows And Widowers: After they reach full retirement age, widows and widowers typically receive 100 percent of what their spouses received. They can receive partial survivor benefits as early as age 60, or at 50 if they are disabled. However, they can receive benefits younger than that if they are caring for the deceased person’s child if the child is under 16 or disabled. If they are not at full retirement age, unmarried spouses can expect to receive anywhere between 71.5 percent and 99 percent of the full amount. If they remarry after age 60, they will still receive their benefits.

Divorced Spouses: If the divorced spouse dies, the living former spouse can receive full benefits, as a widow or widower would, if the marriage lasted 10 years or more and they are age 60 or older, or if they are 50 and disabled. If the surviving ex-spouse remarries after age 60, they will still receive the benefits.

Dependent Parents: Parents who are 62 or older and dependent on an adult child are eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. To qualify as dependent parents, the son or daughter would have had to provide at least half of their parent’s financial support.

Unmarried Children. Children receive 75 percent of the worker’s benefit up to age 19 if they are attending high school full time. Older children can continue to receive benefits if they became disabled before 22 and remain disabled. Stepchildren, grandchildren or adopted children may also be eligible for benefits under certain circumstances. For questions about this, contact the Social Security Administration.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do widows or widowers who receive survivor benefits do after they become eligible for their own retirement benefits?

Under Social Security law, they have a lot of flexibility. They can figure out which benefit would be greater – theirs or the spouse’s – and receive the larger of the two. Keep in mind that this is a decision that has to be made if the widow or widower began accepting a spouse’s benefits before his or her own full retirement age.

Is there a limit to how much a family can receive?

Yes. A surviving spouse or former spouse cannot receive more than 100 percent of the worker’s benefit. And a family, assuming surviving children or dependent parents are also eligible for benefits, cannot receive more than 150 to 180 percent of the worker’s benefit.

Is there such a thing as a “death benefit?”

Yes. If the worker earned enough credits, his spouse or minor children who meet certain requirements will receive a one-time payment of $255 after your death.

Keep in mind that Social Security rules can be complicated, and the best source of information is the U.S. Social Security Administration, which can be reached at 1-800-772-1213 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you are unsure about your particular situation, give the SSA a call to iron out the details.


More in category

Related Content