What Are Social Security Survivors Benefits, and How do they Work?

Published on: November 15, 2016

When a loved one passes, especially a primary earner, how will those left behind continue to provide for themselves.The topic of how your loved ones will be able to support themselves if you die is not a pleasant one. It can be difficult to know that one day, you might not be there for your spouse or child anymore.

Most of the time, when talking about how you can support your family if you pass on, you’d be talking about life insurance (which is a good idea if you can afford it). However, not everyone can afford comprehensive life insurance coverage—which is why the Social Security Administration pays out survivors benefits.

What are Social Security survivors benefits, and how do they work?

Explaining Survivors Benefits

Social Security Survivors Benefits are a form of Social Security income that is paid to the surviving spouse, ex-spouse, or children of a qualifying worker who dies.

It’s kind of like a life insurance policy that’s built right into the Social Security system.

How Does a Worker Qualify for Survivors Benefits?

Earning survivors benefits is similar to the process for earning most other Social Security benefits. As you pay Social Security tax, you earn income credits. If you work for enough years your surviving spouse & children will be able to collect benefits based on your earnings.

As noted in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) guide to Survivors Benefits, “the number of years you need to work for your family to be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits depends on your age when you die. The younger you are, the fewer years you need to work. But no one needs more than 10 years of work to be eligible.”

Who Can Collect Survivors Benefits Based on Your Earnings?

The following people can collect benefits based on your earnings:

  • Your Widow/Widower. If your spouse is at full retirement age when you die, they can immediately start collecting the full amount of the survivors benefits your earnings make them eligible for. If at age 60, but not at full retirement age, your spouse can start collecting a reduced benefit based on your earnings (between “71-99 percent” according to the SSA).
    • Note: If your surviving spouse is disabled, they can collect benefits as early as age 50.
    • Note: Your spouse may collect a benefit of up to 75% of your basic benefit amount at any age if they are caring for your child under the age of 16.
  • Your Children. If you have children under the age of 18 (or up to 22 years of age if they are disabled), they can receive survivors benefits worth up to 75% of your retirement benefit.
  • Your Surviving Ex. A former spouse can collect survivors benefits just like a current spouse could—IF the marriage lasted at least 10 years. This length of marriage requirement is waived if the ex-spouse is caring for a child eligible for benefits on your earnings record. However, if your ex-spouse remarries before age 60 (or age 50 if disabled), then they cannot claim survivors benefits based on your earnings.
  • Your Dependent Parents. If you’re providing financial support to your parents sufficient enough for them to qualify as your dependents (you provide at least half their support), then they may collect survivor’s benefits based on your work history if they’re age 62 or older.

It’s important to note that the total family benefits that can be paid based on your earnings is capped between 150% and 180% of your benefit amount. So, if your basic benefit was worth $1,000 a month, the most the SSA would pay to all your survivors as a group based on your earnings would be $1,800 a month—whether you have two survivors collecting benefits or six.

Do Other Payments Impact Survivors Benefits?

There are a lot of money questions surrounding Social Security.Yes—depending on the age of the survivor and the type of income being received.

For example, as noted by the SSA, “If you [as a survivor] get a pension from work for which you paid Social Security taxes, that pension won’t affect your Social Security benefits.” Other pensions which don’t have Social Security taxes built into them, on the other hand, may reduce the survivors benefit your survivors may claim; such pensions cause a reduction in Survivor's benefits of 2.00 for every 3.00 received in the pension.

If your survivor works while receiving survivors benefits, then they may receive reduced benefits until they hit full retirement age.

How Can My Survivors Claim This Benefit?

The process for filing for survivors benefits is a bit less well-known than the process for filing for disability or retirement under Social Security.

In most cases, the funeral home will automatically notify the SSA about the death, provided your survivors have given the funeral home’s director your Social Security Number so the report can be made.

At this time, the SSA doesn’t accept online applications for survivors benefits. To report a death and start the process, your surviving spouse/children need to contact your local Social Security office or call the SSA at one of the following phone numbers:

  • 1 (800) 772-1213
  • 1 (800) 325-0778

Social Security representatives can be reached at these numbers any time between 7 am and 7 pm Monday through Friday.

Your survivors will need to provide specific information as well, including:

  • Proof of death—such as a death certificate or documentation from the funeral home.
  • Their SSN and your SSN as the deceased worker
  • Survivor’s birth certificate
  • Your marriage certificate if the survivor is a spouse
  • Your divorce papers, if the survivor is filing as a divorced spouse
  • Dependent child or children’s SSNs and birth certificates
  • Deceased worker’s W-2 forms or self-employment tax return from the most recent year of work
  • Banking information including bank name and account number for direct deposit

It may be an unpleasant topic, but it’s important to talk with your loved ones about survivors benefits so they can be ready if and when the worst happens. The SSA can, in some cases, base the pay given to your survivors based on the time they filed for benefits rather than the actual date of your passing—which can result in lost payments.

If you need to learn more about survivors benefits and other types of Social Security benefits, contact a Social Security expert today!

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