Social Security provides vital retirement benefits for workers after their careers end. But the program goes beyond helping just workers by offering benefits for widows and widowers after their spouses pass away. For many, these survivors benefits make up an essential part of a widow's or widower's retirement income. Let's look more closely at the benefits that Social Security pays to widows and widowers.

What benefits can widows and widowers receive from Social Security?

Widows and widowers are entitled to receive survivors benefits from Social Security if their spouse worked long enough paying Social Security payroll taxes to qualify. The amount of time the deceased spouse must have worked depends on age at death. But no one needs to have earned more than 40 Social Security credits -- 10 years of work for most people -- for a surviving spouse to claim widowers or widows benefits. In cases involving minor children, working just a year and a half out of the most recent three years can be enough to guarantee benefits for a surviving spouse caring for those children.

Six Social Security cards overlapping

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Note that survivors benefits are different from the spousal benefits that you can receive during your spouse's lifetime. The biggest difference is in the amount. Spousal benefits are based on an amount equal to half of the Social Security benefit that the worker would be entitled to receive at full retirement age. Survivors benefits, on the other hand, are generally equal to a full 100% of the deceased worker's benefit.

As with other benefits, however, what widows and widowers receive depends on the age at which they claim those benefits. You'll only get full widows benefits if you wait until full retirement age to claim them. You can claim as early as age 60, or even 50 if you're disabled, but the reduction in benefits at 60 pays you just 71.5% of what you'd get if you waited until full retirement age.

Special rules covering benefits for widows and widowers

There are a couple of potentially confusing rules that you need to understand about widows and widowers benefits under Social Security. First, if you are the surviving spouse and you have a work history of your own that entitles you to Social Security retirement benefits, then keep in mind that you don't have to claim both benefits at the same time. In fact, timing them separately can lead to earning a greater total amount of benefits over your lifetime.

For instance, say that you just turned 62 and would be entitled to a $750 monthly retirement benefit based on your own work history if you file today. Your spouse just passed away and was receiving benefits of $1,000. If you claim survivors benefits, the baseline $1,000 would be reduced to $810 per month because of your age, and that's what you'd receive for the rest of your life.

However, if you just take your retirement benefit now and wait to claim your survivors benefit until you reach your full retirement age of 66, you can get $750 per month for the next four years, then $1,000 per month thereafter. You'll have to accept $60 less per month from ages 62 to 66, but you'll get $190 more per month for the rest of your life after that.

The other rule that can trip up widows and widowers is that remarrying can take away your benefits. The key age is 60. If you remarry before age 60, then you can no longer get widows or widowers benefits based on your deceased former spouse. If you remarry after you turn 60, however, then you remain eligible for those survivors benefits -- even though you'll potentially also be eligible for other benefits based on your new marriage.

Social Security provides valuable benefits for retirees, but the program also takes care of family members. By knowing the rules governing widows and widowers benefits, you'll be better able to plan for the financial future of your entire family both during your lifetime and after your death.