Families often rely on one person to bring in the income that sustains the household. When the family’s breadwinner dies, the loss is felt deeply. Compounding the family’s grief is the question of how to meet their daily needs. This can quickly become a serious issue.
Under certain conditions, the survivors may be able to draw Social Security survivor benefits in the name of the deceased. Although this can’t replace a lost spouse or parent, it can ease the burden of making ends meet for those left behind.
Qualifying for Social Security
Most working people, whether employees or self-employed, earn credits toward Social Security by paying into it monthly. An individual must earn $1,510 per quarter, or at least $6,040, to earn the maximum four credits a year. Once 40 credits have been earned, a process which normally takes about ten years, it is enough to receive benefit from Social Security.
Who Is a ‘Survivor’?
Before you or anyone else can get Social Security survivors benefits, the deceased must have earned at least six credits (out of 40 possible) within the three years prior to their death. Applicants for survivor benefits can include a wide group of people—not just the widow or widower. In addition to dependent children and dependent parents, survivors may also be ex-spouses.
If the individual died before reaching full retirement age, survivors benefits are based on the amount the deceased would have been entitled to, based on their lifetime earnings.
Unless there are special circumstances (see below), a surviving spouse can receive survivors benefits from age 60 through full retirement age (FRA).
Spouses who are disabled can receive survivors benefits early. The Social Security Administration (SSA) says that disabled spouses who are survivors can start receiving benefits if the individual is at least 50, and if his or her disability started at least seven years before the death of the breadwinner.
Caretakers of Children
The SSA also gives survivors benefits to an individual of any age who is the primary caretaker of a child of the deceased. The child must be younger than 16 to qualify and must be either the deceased’s natural or adopted child.
If you are a divorced spouse of the deceased, you also can get SSA survivors benefits once you reach the age of 60, or at age 50 if you are disabled. To qualify, you must have been married to the deceased for at least 10 ten years.
If You Remarry
Widows, widowers, and divorced spouses who are younger than 60, cannot receive survivors benefits if they remarry. However, if they remarry after they reach 60 (or 50 if they have a disability) they can still receive survivors benefits.
If you remarry, and your new spouse is already receiving Social Security benefits, it may enable you to get a higher amount. The SSA will not combine benefits, but if you would receive a larger payment based on your new spouse’s work record, you will receive that amount.
Unmarried children under 18, or under 19 if they attend school full time, can also receive Social Security after the death of a parent. Children who are disabled can receive benefits if they became disabled before age 22 and continue to be disabled. It is also possible—under the right circumstances—that stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, and adopted children may also receive benefits.
Parents who are 62 or older and were supported by their deceased child, can also receive Social Security survivors benefits. To qualify, they must have received at least half of their support from the deceased at the time of death. Most of the time, to be eligible for survivors benefits, a parent cannot have remarried after the supporting child died.
How Much Will You Receive?
Your survivors benefits are tied to how much the worker would have received if still alive, and to your own age. Only people who reach full retirement age can receive full benefits, but you can start receiving an income as early as age 60. At that age, however, your benefits will be reduced by 28.5 percent. For example, if you would have received $1,000 a month at FRA, electing to receive benefits at age 60 would entitle you to $715 per month.
If you are caring for a child of the deceased, you will receive 75 percent of the deceased’s benefit, regardless of your own age.
There is a maximum amount of benefits you can receive from Social Security. It will be different under varying circumstances, but the family maximum limit—the maximum amount that can be paid on a worker’s earnings record—ranges between 150 percent and 180 percent of the main earner’s primary benefit amount. When the total amount paid to survivors is more than this amount, the SSA will reduce it proportionally.
The SSA also gives a lump-sum death payment called the Social Security lump-sum death benefit (LSDB). This one-time payment of $255 can be given to a surviving spouse or child under certain circumstances. The LSDB was capped at $255 in 1954; thus few survivors apply for it.
What If I’m Already Receiving Benefits?
If you are already getting Social Security benefits and your spouse dies, you have a choice to make. You can continue receiving your own Social Security benefit or you can opt to take your deceased spouse’s survivors benefit—which may be higher. If you continue to work until you reach your FRA, you can switch back to get the new amount based on your new total income—if it is higher.
For those already receiving Social Security benefits, an application for survivors benefits is only valid if the amount you are currently receiving is less than the survivors benefits you might receive.
How to Apply for Survivors Benefits
After your loved one dies, you need to follow a specific procedure to claim survivors benefits. You cannot report your spouse’s death or apply for survivors benefits online. Your funeral director can notify the Social Security Administration if you give them the deceased’s Social Security number.
To apply for survivors benefits on your own, contact the SSA either by phone (1-800-772-1213) or by making a personal visit. The local SSA office near you can be found by going to the Social Security Office Locator. You will need to bring a death certificate and other identifying papers—which you can find on the SSA’s website.
If you are already receiving benefits based on your spouse’s or parent’s record, generally, the SSA will automatically switch you to survivors benefits once they are notified of the death of your loved one. If you are receiving Social Security benefits based on your own income or disability, it will be necessary to notify the SSA and apply for survivors benefits.
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