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Understanding Survivorship Social Security Benefits: Eligibility and Claiming Strategies

June 3, 2024

Blueprint Income Team

Social Security survivor benefits provide a crucial safety net for families after the loss of a spouse or parent. This is why it's so important to fully understand survivor benefits, including who qualifies, what benefits are available, and how to navigate the claiming process.

Whether you're recently widowed or simply want to be prepared, this guide empowers you to make informed decisions about survivor benefits. Explore the eligibility requirements, benefit structure, and steps involved in claiming these benefits to ensure your family receives the support they deserve.

Understanding survivor benefits

Survivor benefits are a lifeline for families experiencing the loss of a loved one who contributed to Social Security. Administered by the Social Security Administration, these monthly payments provide much-needed financial support during a time of emotional and practical challenges.

Who qualifies for survivor benefits?

The SSA has specific criteria to determine eligibility for survivor benefits. Here's a breakdown of the main categories:

Spouses and former spouses

Age: Generally, you must be 60 years or older (or 50+ if disabled) and unmarried.

Marriage duration: You must have been married for at least nine months before the person’s death. However, this rule doesn't apply if the death was accidental.

Divorced spouses: If you were divorced from the deceased person, you may still be eligible for survivor benefits if you were married for at least 10 years and remain unmarried yourself.


Dependent children: Unmarried children under 18 years old qualify as dependents and can receive survivor benefits based on the deceased parent's earnings history.

Disabled adult children: Adult children who became disabled before age 22 and remain dependent on the deceased parent's financial support can also receive survivor benefits.

Dependent parents

In some cases, dependent parents aged 62 or older who lost a spouse who provided more than half of their financial support may be eligible for survivor benefits.

Additional considerations

Remarriage: Remarrying after age 60 generally won't affect your eligibility for survivor benefits based on a previous marriage. However, there may be some implications for benefits received on your new spouse's earnings record.

Student status: Unmarried children who are full-time students can continue receiving survivor benefits up to age 19.

What benefits are available?

The type and amount of survivor benefits a family receives depend on several factors, including:

The deceased person’s earnings history: Higher lifetime earnings translate to potentially higher survivor benefits.

The survivor's age and relationship to the deceased: Spouses generally receive a higher percentage of the deceased's benefit compared to children or parents.

The deceased person’s benefit status: The benefit amount may be based on their full retirement benefit amount or the actual benefit they were receiving if they retired early.

Here's a more detailed breakdown of the different types of survivor benefits:

Spousal benefits

A surviving spouse at full retirement age can receive 100% of the deceased person’s benefit amount.

Spouses who claim benefits before reaching full retirement age will receive a reduced percentage (ranging from 71.5% to 99%) of the deceased's benefit.

A surviving spouse caring for a child under 16 in certain situations may be eligible for a benefit equal to 75% of the deceased's benefit amount, even if they haven't reached full retirement age.

Child benefits

Dependent children and disabled adult children typically receive 75% of the deceased parent's benefit amount.

Dependent parent benefits

If they meet the eligibility criteria, a dependent parent may be entitled to up to 82.5% of the deceased person’s benefit amount.

Claiming survivor benefits

Navigating the process of claiming survivor benefits can seem daunting during a difficult time. This section will guide you through the application process, required documents, and strategic considerations for maximizing your benefits.

How to apply for survivor benefits

Unlike most Social Security benefits, you cannot apply for survivor benefits online. Here are the three main ways to initiate the application process:

Phone: Call the SSA national toll-free number at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY: 1-800-325-0778) to speak with a representative.

Online: Visit the SSA website for general information and resources on survivor benefits. While you cannot apply online, the website offers valuable resources and tools.

In person: Visit your local Social Security office. You can find your nearest office using the SSA's office locator tool. By contacting the SSA, you can get personalized advice on survivor benefits eligibility, claiming strategies, and benefit amounts specific to your situation. Don't hesitate to reach out and ensure you receive the financial support you and your family deserve during this challenging time.

Required documents for applying

To ensure a smooth application process, it's advisable to gather the necessary documents beforehand. Here's a checklist of what you may need:

Proof of death: A certified death certificate from a funeral home or medical examiner.

Social Security numbers: Your own Social Security number and that of the deceased person.

Birth certificates: Your birth certificate and, if applicable, the birth certificate of the deceased person and any dependent children filing for benefits.

Marriage certificate (if applicable): Your marriage certificate to the deceased person (if you are a surviving spouse).

Dependent information: Social Security numbers and proof of relationship to the deceased (for dependent children or disabled adult children).

Deceased's earnings records (optional): The deceased person’s most recent W-2 forms or self-employment tax return to expedite the benefit calculation process.

When to claim survivor benefits (considering blackout period and claiming strategies)

There's no single "best" time to claim survivor benefits. The optimal timing depends on your individual circumstances. Here are some crucial factors to weigh:

Blackout period: Be aware of a potential gap in benefits known as the "blackout period." This applies to a surviving spouse who receives payouts as the caregiver for a child under 16 and haven't reached their full retirement age. When the child turns 16, the spouse will no longer receive benefits (until they turn 60 and can collect spousal benefits).

Claiming strategies: You can strategically choose whether to claim survivor benefits based on the deceased person’s earnings record or your own. This may impact the overall benefits you receive over time. Consult with the SSA or a financial advisor to determine the most advantageous claiming strategy for your situation.

Full retirement age: Claiming survivor benefits before reaching full retirement age typically results in a reduced benefit amount. Consider your financial needs and long-term goals when making this decision.

Additional considerations

While navigating survivor benefits, here are some additional factors to keep in mind.

Survivor benefits vs. your own retirement benefit

Survivor benefits are separate from your own retirement benefit earned through your work history. You are eligible to receive both, but there may be strategic advantages in claiming one before the other. The SSA can help you determine the optimal claiming strategy to maximize your total Social Security benefits.

One-time death benefit

A one-time death benefit of $255 is payable to certain eligible family members on the person’s Social Security record. There's a two-year filing deadline from the date of death to claim this benefit. Contact the SSA for more information on eligibility and claiming procedures.

Impact of remarriage on benefits

Remarrying after reaching age 60 generally won't affect your eligibility for survivor benefits based on a previous marriage. However, if you remarry before age 60 while receiving survivor benefits, those benefits will typically stop. There can also be implications for benefits you may receive based on your new spouse's earnings record. It's always best to consult with the SSA to understand the specific impact of remarriage on your benefits.

Future of survivor benefits

The Social Security landscape is constantly evolving. One proposed bill suggests that surviving spouses could receive 75% of the combined Social Security benefit the couple received before the loss. While not yet law, this bill highlights potential changes that could impact future survivor benefits.

Taking the next step

Losing a loved one is a difficult experience, and navigating financial matters during this time can be overwhelming. The SSA is there to help.

After submitting your application for survivor benefits to the SSA, it's important to be patient. Processing times can vary, but the SSA will keep you updated throughout the process. You can check the application status online through your mySocialSecurity account (if you have one) or by calling the SSA directly. In the meantime, gather any additional documentation the SSA may request and make sure they have your most up-to-date contact information. Most importantly, focus on taking care of yourself and your family during this difficult time.

Understanding your social security benefits

Survivor benefits can provide essential financial security for families coping with the loss of a loved one. Remember, the SSA is a valuable resource. Don't hesitate to contact them for personalized guidance to ensure you receive the maximum benefits you and your family are entitled to. By planning ahead and taking the next step by applying to the SSA, you can navigate this challenging time with greater financial security and peace of mind.


Blueprint Income Team

We are a team of finance, insurance, and actuarial professionals working to make it easier for everyone to achieve a steady and comfortable retirement. We write about annuities (the good and the bad) and provide strategies to help Americans prepare for retirement.


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