Social Security is more than just retirement and disability benefits. The other major component of Social Security is survivors benefits, which account for about 13% of the benefits paid out by Social Security but aren't well understood by most Americans who don't have personal experience with them. With that in mind, here's an overview of this Social Security program that could provide your family with much-needed income after you're gone.

What are Social Security survivors benefits, and do I qualify?

Survivors benefits are a big part of the Social Security program. At the end of 2016, 6.1 million Americans were receiving survivors benefits totaling $6.8 billion per month – an average of about $1,115 per beneficiary.

In a nutshell, Social Security survivors benefits are designed to help take care of your family financially if you die. And this is a bigger concern than you may think. About one in eight of today's 20-year-olds will die before reaching age 67.

Young parents with two children.

Image Source: Getty Images.

Qualification for survivors benefits, just as with Social Security retirement and disability benefits, depends on your work record. The amount of Social Security "credits" you need to be eligible for benefits for your survivors depends on your age when you die, but nobody needs more than 10 years of work to be eligible.

Specifically for survivors benefits, if you have credit for one and a half years of work in the three years preceding your death, benefits can be paid to your surviving spouse and children. In all, about 96% of people between ages 20 and 49 who worked in Social Security-covered employment in 2016 qualify for survivors benefits to be paid to their spouses and/or children in the event of their death.

How much could your survivors get?

The amount of survivors benefits paid to your family depends on your survivors' relationship to you, and how many people will be drawing a benefit on your work record.

Qualifying survivors must fit into one of these categories to be eligible for a benefit based on your work record:

  • A widow or widower age 60 or older (50 or older if disabled)
  • A widow or widower of any age, if qualifying for your child who is under 16 years old.
  • Your unmarried children under 18, or up to age 19 if still in high school.
  • Your unmarried children 18 or older if they have a disability that began before age 22.
  • A dependent stepchild, grandchild, or step-grandchild (in some cases).
  • Your parents, if they are over 62 and are financially dependent on you.
  • Your divorced spouse, if certain conditions are met.

The benefit amount payable to each of your survivors is calculated as a percentage of your primary insurance amount (PIA), which is the benefit amount you would be entitled to had you lived to your full retirement age and started collecting your benefit at that age. Here are the most common examples:

Relationship to You

Survivor Benefit (% of Your PIA)

Widow(er) of full retirement age

100%

Widow(er) age 60 to full retirement age

71.5%-99%

Disabled widow(er) age 50-59

71.5%

Widow(er) caring for your child

75%

Your qualifying child

75%

One of your parents (dependent)

82.5%

Both of your parents (dependents)

75% each

Data source: Social Security Administration.

It's also important to mention that there is a maximum amount of survivors' benefits that can be paid out based on your work record. In other words, if you have a widow and five dependent children, they won't all receive the percentage of your PIA indicated in the chart. Specifically, the maximum total of survivors benefits that can be paid on your work record is based on a formula that results in a total of 150% to 180% of your PIA.

If the calculated survivors benefits according to the chart add up to more than this percentage of your PIA, then all survivors benefits will be reduced proportionally.

Better yet, for a good estimate of what your survivors could get if you were to die this year, create an account at www.ssa.gov if you haven't done so already and view your most recent Social Security statement. Among other useful estimates and information, you'll find an estimate of how much your various survivors could get, as well as your total family maximum.

How to apply for survivors benefits

If you're in the unfortunate position of qualifying for Social Security survivors benefits after the death of a loved one, the good news is that the application process is relatively painless.

If your spouse passes away and you were already collecting Social Security retirement benefits, the process is quite simple. Simply contact Social Security (either by phone or in person) and inform it of the death as soon as you can. If you had previously been receiving a spousal benefit, or a benefit on your own record, your benefit will be changed to a survivor benefit if the change will result in a higher amount.

On the other hand, if you weren't already receiving retirement benefits, there's a little more work you'll need to do. Call or visit the SSA, and it'll let you know what documentation and information you'll need. At a minimum, expect to need a death certificate, Social Security numbers for the deceased and survivor(s), your birth certificate, the deceased most recent tax return or W-2, and your bank account information to set up direct deposit for payments. Also have a copy of your marriage certificate or divorce papers, if one of those two situations applies.

Generally, this is a relatively quick process, and the people at the SSA are typically able to verify everything themselves and at no cost to you.

The bottom line on Social Security survivors benefits

Survivors benefits can provide your loved ones with much-needed financial support in the event of your death and you with peace of mind that the financial strain of your untimely death would be somewhat mitigated. And while they don't replace the need for proper life-insurance planning, survivors benefits can provide substantial income and should certainly be considered when planning for your family's future.

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