Who Is Entitled to Social Security Death Benefits?

Infographic of an older woman holding paperwork for social security death benefits

As of December 2022, nearly 49 million Americans were receiving Social Security retirement benefits. You earn these benefits by working and paying Social Security taxes, so the amount you receive when you retire depends on your income while you were still employed. For 2022, the average monthly benefit was $1,825, but you may earn more or less based on your employment history.

Unfortunately, not everyone who pays Social Security taxes lives long enough to collect their retirement benefits. In these situations, the Social Security Administration offers survivor benefits to the family members of beneficiaries. Learn more about how Social Security death benefits work, and find out if you might be eligible.

What Are Social Security Death Benefits?

Social Security death benefits are paid to surviving family members after the death of a person who was actively receiving or eligible for Social Security. For example, a widow may receive survivor benefits based on her husband’s work record. Death benefits make it a little easier to cover household expenses, making them a critical form of financial support to widows, widowers and other eligible recipients.

Who Gets Social Security Death Benefits?

Not just anyone can file for Social Security death benefits. For eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits you must fall into one of the following categories:

  • Widows and widowers who are at least 60 years old (or 50 with a disability)
  • Parents who are over 62 years old and relied on the deceased person for at least 50% of their income; the parent’s Social Security benefits must be lower than their deceased son or daughter’s benefits
  • Widowers of any age who are caring for the deceased individual’s minor child (under 16) or disabled child
  • Surviving divorced spouses who meet other eligibility requirements
  • Children who are not married and under the age of 18; the age limit increases to 19 for surviving children who attend elementary school, middle school or high school on a full-time basis
  • Children who are 18+ and have a disability that developed before the age of 22
  • Some grandchildren, adopted children, stepchildren and step-grandchildren

How Much Money Do You Receive?

Man looking into social security death benefits after a love one passed away

The amount of money you receive depends on your age and your relation to the deceased individual. If you’re a widow or widower who’s reached full retirement age, you qualify for 100% of your spouse’s Social Security benefits. Widows and widowers who haven’t reached full retirement age are allowed to collect partial benefits at the following rates:

  • Ages 50 to 59: 71.5% of the deceased individual’s benefit
  • Age 60 to full retirement age: 71.5% to 99% of the deceased individual’s benefit
  • Any age caring for a child under 16: 75% of the deceased individual’s benefit

By law, your full retirement age depends on when you were born. Anyone born in 1960 or later must wait until the age of 67 to collect their full Social Security retirement benefits. The full retirement age ranges from 66 to 66 years and ten months for people born between 1943 and 1959. 

Surviving children are eligible for 75% of the deceased parent’s Social Security benefits. Remember, this includes children under the age of 18 and adult children who have a disability that developed before they turned 22. One dependent parent is eligible for 82.5% of their deceased child’s benefit; if both parents are alive, each one may be eligible to collect 75%.

Maximizing Your Benefits

If you’re already collecting Social Security based on your own work record, you won’t be able to apply for Social Security death benefits unless your monthly benefit is lower than the deceased individual’s monthly benefit. For example, if you receive $1,725 per month and your deceased spouse was eligible for $1,600 per month, you won’t be able to claim survivor benefits.

For survivors who aren’t collecting Social Security yet, the rules are a little different. You can take survivor benefits at a younger age, increasing your monthly income and eliminating the need to file for Social Security before you reach full retirement age. Another option is to take your own benefits at an earlier age and save the Social Security death benefits for after you retire. The best course of action depends on your personal circumstances, so consider meeting with a financial advisor to determine the best way to handle the situation.

Is There a Time Limit for Applying for Survivors Benefits?

No. You don’t have to file for Social Security death benefits right away. In fact, waiting to file might help you maximize your monthly benefit. Just be sure to pay close attention to the eligibility criteria, as there are some situations in which waiting can hurt you. For example, if you have a 16-year-old child who’s eligible for a deceased parent’s benefits, it doesn’t make sense to wait, as they won’t be eligible once they’re 18 (or 19 if they’re still enrolled in a primary or secondary school).

FAQS

Here are some FAQs about Social Security death benefits:

  1. What should I do when someone dies?

Whether you are a parent, surviving spouse or child of the deceased, you should contact Social Security as soon as possible when someone dies. The funeral director will typically report the person’s death to Social Security most of the time, but it is important to give the funeral home the deceased person’s Social Security number so they can properly report the death.

  1. Do I need to apply for survivor benefits if I am already receiving benefits from my spouse’s or parent’s record?

Generally no, if you are already receiving benefits on your spouse’s or parent’s record, you won’t need to file an application for additional survivor’s benefits. The Social Security office automatically changes any monthly benefits you receive to survivor’s benefits after they receive the report of death.

The Special Lump-Sum Death Payment might also be paid automatically. However, if you are currently receiving retirement or disability benefits on your own accord, you will need to apply for survivor’s benefits, and Social Security will check to see if you can get a higher benefit amount as a widow or widower​.

  1. What documents are needed to apply for survivor’s benefits? 

Survivor benefit documents may vary depending on the specific benefit you are applying for. Common documents that may be required include:

  • Widows/Widowers or Surviving Divorced Spouse’s Benefits: Marriage certificate, divorce decree (if applicable), and the deceased worker’s Social Security number.
  • Child’s Benefits: Child’s birth certificate, Social Security numbers of the child and deceased worker.
  • Mother’s or Father’s Benefits: Child’s birth certificate, Social Security numbers of the child and deceased worker.
  • Lump-Sum Death Payment: Death certificate and the deceased worker’s Social Security number.
  • Parent’s Benefits: Child’s birth certificate, death certificate of the deceased worker, and the parent’s Social Security number.

If you are worried about qualifying without certain documents, you should still apply for benefits. Your local Social Security office can contact the state Bureau of Vital Statistics to verify all your information online at no cost. When mailing any documents, make sure to include the Social Security number on a different sheet of paper and not on the original documents.

How to Apply for Social Security Death Benefits

To apply for survivor benefits, visit your local Social Security office. The SSA website has a field office locator, making it easy to find a local office based on your ZIP code. Alternatively, you can call (800) 772-1213. Before you call the toll-free number or visit your local office, gather as much information as possible about the deceased individual, such as their Social Security number and the current monthly benefit amount.

You might also be interested in: The History Behind Social Security Disability

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