When most people think of Social Security, they think of retirement benefits, but there's actually much more to the program than that. One of its most valuable features is the survivors benefits it offers to family members of workers who die.

Social Security survivors benefits can help people who were dependent on the deceased person's income and who are financially struggling following the earner's death. Here's an overview of how it works and who may qualify.

Who qualifies for Social Security survivors benefits?

In order for someone to be eligible for survivors benefits, the deceased worker must have worked long enough to qualify for Social Security. The number of working years that person must have had is determined by the age at which they died. The most anyone needs to have worked is 10 years, but younger workers who die unexpectedly may still qualify even if they haven't worked that long.

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If the worker in question qualified for Social Security, the following people are eligible for survivors benefits upon their death:

  • Widow or widower
  • Unmarried children younger than 18, or up to 19 if they're attending secondary school full time
  • Adult children who were disabled before age 22 
  • Dependent parents age 62 and older, if the worker was providing half or more of their support
  • Divorced spouses, if they were married to the worker for at least 10 years and don't remarry before age 60

How much money will you get?

Several factors influence the amount of the Social Security survivors benefit. The first is how much the worker made during their lifetime. You can estimate this amount for your own work record by creating a my Social Security account online. Or you can contact the Social Security Administration for information about survivors benefits for a deceased family member.

Your relationship to the deceased worker and your age also matter. Surviving spouses, for example, are eligible for 100% of the deceased worker's benefits if they are of full retirement age -- 66 or 67, depending on the year they were born. If they are 60 or older but below the full retirement age, then they will be eligible for 71% to 99% of the full benefit amount. Benefits can begin as early as age 50 if the surviving spouse is disabled, and they can begin at any time if the surviving spouse is caring for the deceased worker's child who is 16 or younger or disabled. The same rules apply to qualifying divorced spouses.

If the deceased was caring for a single dependent parent , the parent is entitled to 82.5% of the worker's benefit amount. If the deceased was caring for both of their dependent parents, each parent is entitled to 75% each. Qualifying children are eligible for 75% of the worker's benefit amount. Adult children who are currently receiving Social Security disability benefits will receive the difference between their disability benefits and the survivor benefit they're entitled to. So if they get $1,000 per month for disability, but they would be entitled to $1,500 per month in survivors benefits, they would receive an additional $500 per month in survivors benefits on top of their $1,000 in disability benefits. This is what's known as excess survivor benefits. In addition to these benefits, there's also a one-time $255 death payment available to qualifying spouses and children.

If you aren't currently of age to qualify for survivors benefits -- for example, you're a surviving spouse with no children and you're under age 50 -- you will become eligible as soon as you meet any of the criteria listed above. In the meantime, you may want to rely on life insurance, if you have any. Otherwise, you may need to look for ways to lessen the financial pain, like picking up a side job or cutting back your expenses.

There is a limit on how much the Social Security Administration will pay out in survivors benefits to all qualifying family members each month. This is somewhere between 150% and 180% of the deceased worker's total benefit amount. For specific information on how much you are entitled to, consult the Social Security Administration.

It's also worth noting that working while you're younger than your full retirement age could reduce your survivors benefits. If you are under your full retirement age for the full year, then the government will deduct $1 from your benefits for every $2 you earn above $17,640 in 2019. In the year that you will reach your full retirement age, the government will deduct $1 for every $3 you earn over $46,920 if you hit this limit before your birthday. Once you reach full retirement age, your benefits will not be reduced and any amount that was deducted off of your Social Security benefits before will be factored in when calculating your benefits for that year.

How do you apply for Social Security survivors benefits?

When you're ready to sign up for Social Security survivors benefits, you must contact the Social Security Administration. You'll need to provide proof of the worker's death and their tax returns for the most recent year. You'll also need your Social Security number and the appropriate documentation to prove your relationship to the deceased.

If you're a widow or widower and already getting Social Security benefits of your own, it's still worth looking into survivors benefits. You may be able to qualify for more money as a surviving spouse than you could on your own work record.  The Social Security Administration can help you figure out which is the most advantageous option for you. If you do decide to switch over to survivors benefits, you will need to fill out an application and provide a copy of the deceased's death certificate.

Survivors benefits can never replace a loved one's presence, but they can go a long way toward easing the financial burden caused by the loss of their income. If a relative recently died and you believe you qualify for survivors benefits, contact the Social Security Administration to discuss your options today.

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