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What’s the Deal with Survivor Benefits?

Social Security provides income for the families of workers who have died through survivor benefits. Survivor benefits can be collected by minor children, widows and widowers, older disabled children, and dependent parents of the deceased. Step-children, adopted children, and grandchildren can also be considered for benefits.

In order for your family to qualify for survivor benefits, you need to have earned forty lifetime Social Security credits. In 2020, you receive one credit for every $1,410 you earn, up to $5,640 for a total of four credits per year.

The exact number of credits you need for your family to be eligible for survivor benefits depends on your age when you die. The younger you are, the fewer credits you will need, but the most credits you will ever need is forty. Generally, that means you need to work and pay Social Security taxes for at least ten years for your family to qualify.

The benefit amount to which your family will be entitled is based on the maximum amount you would have collected if you were still living. If your death leaves your spouse with dependent children, a special provision allows benefits to be paid to them as long as you earned six or more credits within the three calendar years prior to your death.

Social Security also provides a one-time death benefit of $255 that can be paid to your living spouse if he or she was living with you at the time of your death or a spouse not living with you if he or she is receiving certain Social Security benefits on your record. If there is no surviving spouse, the one-time payment can be made to a child eligible for benefits on your record on the month of your death.

If you begin collecting Social Security benefits before you reach full retirement age (FRA), your survivors will receive reduced benefits after your death as well.

Your survivors must apply for benefits over the phone or in person; they cannot apply for benefits online. And beware of the possibility that a blackout period may apply. A blackout period can occur when a child is too old to collect survivor benefits, and his or her remaining parent is too young to collect them either. It begins when the youngest surviving child reaches ages sixteen and continues until the surviving spouse retires.

Retroactive survivor benefits may apply in certain circumstances. If your surviving spouse is younger than full retirement age and files for survivor benefits within one month of your death, he or she can receive one month of retroactive benefits. Widows or widowers under full retirement age may qualify for up to six months of retroactive benefits if you claimed reduced Social Security benefits before you reached full retirement age.

When your survivors are preparing to apply for benefits, they should have specific documents on hand, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, proof of citizenship, or divorce decrees. And while there is no time limit to file for widow or widower benefits, there is a time limit to collect the one-time lump-sum death benefit. Therefore, your family should not waste any time applying for survivor benefits in the unfortunate event of your death.