Once you’ve qualified for Social Security retirement benefits, your spouse, children, and other survivors may be eligible to receive monthly payouts in the event of your death. These survivor benefits are an important resource for millions of people across the United States, and here’s an overview of how they work:
How do survivor benefits work?
Social Security survivor benefits are designed primarily for relatives who are dependent on your income. To leave behind these benefits, you’ll need to meet requirements for how long you’ve worked and how much you’ve earned. According to the Social Security Administration, this is calculated via a system of credits. For 2023, every $1,640 you earn per year equals a credit, up to $6,560 and four credits per year. Once you’ve amassed 40 credits — generally a 10-year process unless your income is quite low — your survivors will be eligible to collect the maximum benefit amount.
Who is eligible for survivor benefits?
Many of your family members can qualify for survivor benefits, depending on whether they meet certain criteria. According to NerdWallet writer Taryn Phaneuf, survivors fall into these three main categories:
Spouses: Your widow, widower, or ex-spouse is eligible for survivor benefits at age 60, at age 50 if disabled, and at any age if caring for your under-16 or disabled child. However, remarriage before the relevant age thresholds will render a person ineligible.
Children: Your unmarried children under 18 can qualify for survivor benefits. Children over 18 with a disability that was diagnosed before age 22 are eligible as well. In some cases, stepchildren, grandchildren, and adopted children may also qualify.
Parents: Your dependent parents over 62 who meet certain income requirements are eligible for survivor benefits. Stepparents and adoptive parents are eligible, too, if they became your parents before you turned 16.
Additional eligibility rules may apply as well, so survivors should be sure to contact the Social Security Administration to learn more about their specific situation.
How much are survivor benefits worth?
Survivor benefits are based on the monthly amount you’d be receiving once you reach full retirement age — or, if you’ve retired early, on the smaller payments you’re currently receiving. The amount that’s paid out also depends on how the survivor is related to you. Per Phaneuf, spouses and ex-spouses who are 60 and older are eligible for 100% of your benefits, but the maximum amount for other relatives ranges from 71.5% to 99%. Payouts are capped at 150% to 180% of your full retirement benefit, so once survivor payments exceed this (for example, if multiple people are claiming them), they’ll be proportionally reduced.
What does the application process include?
Your survivors will need to apply for survivor benefits by calling the Social Security Administration or making an appointment at a local SSA office — this currently can’t be done online. Phaneuf notes if they’re already receiving other Social Security benefits, the SSA will make a comparison and give them whichever payout is higher.
To learn more about how Social Security survivor benefits can increase your relatives’ security in the event of your death, consult with the SSA or a financial professional.