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A Guide to Social Security Survivor Benefits


Married couples often share their income both while working and in retirement. However, when one spouse dies, the other might still rely on the deceased’s income. This is where Social Security surviving spouse benefits may provide some financial support. Surviving spouses can collect Social Security survivor benefits after their spouse dies permitting that they were married for at least nine months. To determine if you’re eligible for benefits, and specifically when you can begin receiving them, here’s what you need to know. For full estate planning advice, a professional financial advisor may be able to help.

What Are Social Security Surviving Spouse Benefits?

For widows, widowers, and dependent children who survive a spouse, parent or child, the Social Security Administration (SSA) offers benefits. These benefits provide supplemental financial support. Social Security surviving spouse benefits fall under this umbrella and provide benefits to widows or widowers when their spouse passes away. A surviving spouse can collect 100% of the deceased’s monthly Social Security benefit if the survivor has reached full retirement age.

It’s important to note that if you’re already receiving Social Security benefits upon your spouse’s passing, you will not receive an additional benefit. Social Security will only pay the higher of the two benefits to a survivor, which is important to know so that you don’t expect or plan for more money than the rules entitle you to.

Who Qualifies for Social Security Surviving Spouse Benefits?

Monthly Social Security survivor benefit payments are available to a surviving spouse who is 60 years old or older. The age changes to 50 years old if your surviving spouse is disabled. But, if you’re caring for your spouse’s child who is under 16 years old or disabled, you are eligible for these benefits at any age.

Certain family members other than spouses may also collect survivor benefits. These family members include:

  • An unmarried child: If an unmarried child of the deceased is younger than age 18 and is a full-time student or is over age 18 but has a disability that began before age 22, they may receive survivor benefits.
  • A stepchild, grandchild, step-grandchild or adopted child: Other children might be eligible for survivor benefits based on certain circumstances.
  • Parents: Parents 62 years old or older who are dependent on the deceased for at least half of their income may be eligible for survivor benefits permitting that their own Social Security benefit is not larger than the deceased’s.
  • A divorced spouse: Divorcées might be eligible for benefits depending on certain circumstances of the divorce.

How to Apply for Social Security Surviving Spouse Benefits

Social Security application form

If you meet the above criteria, you may apply for Social Security survivor benefits. You can apply online through My Social Security. If you choose not to apply online, you can call the Social Security Administration (SSA) at (800)772-1213 or visit your local Social Security office.

The application process will require you to share:

  • Your Social Security number
  • The deceased’s Social Security number
  • W-2
  • Tax Returns
  • Marriage Certificate
  • Other personal documents or information

The “other” documents may include your birth certificate, proof of U.S. citizenship if you were born outside the U.S. and more.

How Are Social Security Surviving Spouse Benefits Calculated?

Survivor benefits are paid out to people who have worked a specific number of years and have accumulated what are called credits. A credit is assigned for every quarter that a person earns at least a certain amount. In 2020 that amount was $1,410. This amount will adjust each year for inflation.

A person can earn up to four credits per year and is eligible for Social Security retirement benefits when they have earned 40 credits. The number of credits you need to qualify depends on your age when your spouse dies. However, no one needs more than 40 credits to qualify.

The benefit amounts vary based on a person’s lifetime earnings. The more a person earned, the higher their benefit and the higher the survivor’s benefit will be to their beneficiaries. Additionally, the age at which the person begins collecting benefits will contribute to the size of their Social Security benefit.

Blackout Periods May Change Your Benefit Eligibility 

One way to maximize your Social Security benefits is to understand the blackout periods. Those are periods when family members are ineligible to receive survivor benefits. Blackout periods are a result of complications in the rules that determine survivor benefits and who receives them.

For example, if a surviving spouse is under age 60, they may not receive survivor benefits until they reach that age. However, they may receive survivor benefits on behalf of a child under age 16. A blackout period may also occur if the child of the deceased is over age 18 and the surviving spouse is under age 60. The child may receive survivor’s benefits until they reach age 18, then the family may not receive anything until the surviving spouse turns 60.

The Bottom Line

Retired couple sees their Social Security checkSocial Security surviving spouse benefits are useful in the event your spouse passes away. The funds from your late spouse’s Social Security can help you continue to pay your bills and maintain your quality of life. If you are planning your retirement and doing succession planning, it is wise to work with a financial advisor. They can help you prevent blackout periods and plan for retirement in a way that is conducive to your goals.

Tips for Building a Retirement Plan

  • To make sure you’re on track for a secure retirement, consider speaking with a local financial advisor who can review your finances and tell you where (if needed) to improve. Finding a suitable financial advisor may be more doable than you might think. In fact, SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • The retirement benefits you receive from Social Security can vary depending on several factors. SmartAsset’s Social Security calculator can estimate your future benefits to help you develop a savings plan. You should also learn whether your Social Security benefits will be taxed.

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