Survivor benefits are a type of Social Security that’s provided to families following the death of a wage earner. These payments are designed to offer financial continuity and support to the surviving dependents or beneficiaries of a deceased worker. However, not everyone can collect survivor benefits. Eligibility typically depends on several factors, including the deceased worker’s earned Social Security credits, the survivor’s relationship to the deceased, as well as their age or disability status.
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What Are Survivor Benefits?
Survivor benefits are a key element of the Social Security program, providing monthly payments to widows, widowers and dependents of eligible workers. These benefits are funded by the Social Security taxes that workers pay into the system throughout their careers, and they aim to prevent families from facing financial hardship following the death of a wage earner.
The survivor benefits program was established as part of the Social Security Act of 1935. Generally, survivors can receive up to 100% of the deceased worker’s benefit amount. However, there are limits to the total family benefit amount that can be paid.
Who Is Eligible for Survivor Benefits?
Various individuals can qualify for survivor benefits, including surviving spouses, divorced spouses, children, and in some cases, dependent parents. Here’s a look at the criteria for each category of survivor:
- Spouse or ex-spouse: Widows, widowers and surviving divorced spouses are eligible for survivor benefits if they were married to the deceased for at least nine months (in most cases) and are age 60 or older – or 50 and older if they are disabled.
- Children: Dependent children under age 18 (or up to 19 if they are still in high school) can receive survivor benefits. Disabled children, regardless of age, may also be eligible if the disability began before age 22.
- Parents: In some cases, dependent parents who were financially supported by the deceased may qualify for survivor benefits. Dependent parents must be 62 years old and receive at least half of their financial support from the deceased worker.
Common Misconceptions of Eligibility
Misunderstandings about survivor benefits are common, leading to beneficiaries potentially missing out on these vital payments. One common misconception is that adult children are not eligible for survivor benefits. However, an unmarried child can receive benefits at any age if they were disabled before age 22 and remain disabled.
Another misconception is that parents cannot receive survivor benefits. However, a dependent parent of a deceased worker who was 62 or older may be eligible.
Similarly, there’s a common belief that extended family members and stepchildren cannot receive survivor benefits. Stepchildren can indeed be eligible if they were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support. Grandchildren can also qualify if both of their parents are deceased or disabled, or if the grandchild was legally adopted by the grandparent.
How Much a Survivor May Receive in Benefits
The amount a survivor may receive in benefits varies depending on their relation to the deceased. For example, a surviving spouse at full retirement age or older, generally receives 100% of the deceased worker’s basic benefit amount, while those between age 60 and full retirement age receive between 71.5% and 99%.
Surviving spouses can collect:
- 100% of the deceased worker’s benefit if they have reached full retirement age
- Between 71.5% and 99% if they are between age 60 and full retirement age
- Between 59.5% and 71.5% if they are between ages 50 and 59
Meanwhile, eligible children can receive up to 75% of the deceased worker’s basic Social Security benefit. Other eligible beneficiaries, like dependent parents, can receive about 82.5% (for one parent) or 75% (each for two parents) of the deceased’s benefit rate. Understanding these percentages can help survivors anticipate their potential benefits and plan their finances accordingly.
How Survivors Can Maximize Benefits
To maximize their survivor benefits, survivors need to understand their options and make informed decisions. Here are four common things to keep in mind.
- Timing matters: The age at which you claim survivor benefits can significantly impact the amount you receive. While you can claim benefits as early as age 60 (50 if disabled), waiting until full retirement age (currently 66 to 67, depending on your birth year) can maximize your benefits.
- Work and benefits: If you plan to continue working while receiving survivor benefits, be aware of the earnings limit. Earning over a certain threshold could temporarily reduce your benefits.
- Consider your own benefits: Survivors can potentially switch to their own retirement benefits later if they are higher than the survivor benefits. This strategy allows you to let your own benefits grow by delaying your claim to them.
- Impact of remarrying: If you remarry before age 60 (or 50 if disabled), you typically won’t be eligible to collect survivor benefits from your former spouse. However, if the subsequent marriage ends, you may become eligible again.
Survivor benefits play a crucial role in providing financial support to the surviving dependents or beneficiaries of a worker who passes away. Eligibility is determined by the deceased’s Social Security record, the survivor’s relationship to the deceased and their age or disability status. While surviving spouses and minor children are eligible for survivor benefits, dependent parents, stepchildren and grandchildren can also be eligible in certain scenarios.
Social Security Planning Tips
- Having a sense of how much your benefits will be worth can help you make the best decision about when to start collecting Social Security. SmartAsset’s Social Security calculator can help you estimate how much your benefits could be based on the age at which you collect.
- A financial advisor can help you plan for Social Security and potentially integrate your benefits into a retirement income plan. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
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