Social Security can be a crucial source of economic support if you outlive your spouse. Roughly 6 million Americans receive survivors benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) every month. Here's how survivors benefits work for widows and widowers.

A Social Security card coming into focus.


1. Determining your eligibility

You are eligible for survivors benefits if your spouse had worked enough to be eligible for Social Security benefits.

To become eligible, people need a total of 10 work credits. One work credit is earned every time someone earns a specific amount of money on which they pay Social Security tax. In 2019, for instance, every $1,360 of wages or self-employment income is equal to one work credit. Folks can earn up to four work credits per year.

You can look at your spouse's Social Security statement to see both their eligibility and the estimated amount of your spouse's Social Security benefit. If you don't have access to your spouse's statement, contact the SSA to determine your eligibility.

Most Social Security benefits can be applied for online. Survivors benefits, though, are one of the few exceptions -- you need to contact the SSA directly to apply. You will need a record of your spouse's death. These are usually supplied by the funeral home, but a death certificate is also acceptable.

2. Relationship to other Social Security benefits

You can be eligible for survivors benefits even if you are eligible for Social Security benefits under your own work record. The two benefits are entirely separate.

Survivors benefits are completely different from spousal benefits. Spousal benefits can be claimed if one spouse made significantly less than the other. They are designed to equal as much as 50% of the higher-earning spouse's Social Security benefit, while survivors benefits can equal up to 100% of your spouse's Social Security benefit.

If you are already receiving spousal benefits, the SSA will automatically convert you to survivors benefits once they receive the death record.

3. When you can receive survivors benefits

Although you become eligible based on your work record, when you will be paid survivors benefits depends on your age, just as Social Security benefits in general do.

If you are a widow(er), you can receive survivors benefits if you are 60 or older, although the amount is reduced if you take them before your full retirement age (FRA). You can also receive them if you are 50 or older and disabled. If you are caring for a child who is under the age of 16 or who is disabled, you can receive survivors benefits at any age.

FRA is 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954. It rises a bit for birth years after that, and hits 67 for people born after 1960. To see your FRA, see here.

If you're a widow(er) and take survivors benefits at your FRA, you will receive 100% of your spouse's benefits. If you take benefits between the age of 60 and your FRA, you will receive between 71.5% and 99% of your spouse's benefits. (The percentage climbs for every year you get closer to your FRA.)

If you are a widow(er) and disabled and take survivors benefits between the ages of 50 and 59, you will receive 71.5% of your spouse's benefits. If you are a widow(er) and raising a child under the age of 16 or a disabled child, you will receive 75% of your spouse's Social Security benefits. If you are an ex-spouse, you are eligible for survivors benefits as long as you were married to the deceased person for at least 10 years. The percentages and relationship to FRA are the same as for a spouse.

That changes, though, if you're a divorced ex-spouse who is raising a child of the deceased who is under 16 or disabled. You can receive survivors benefits even if the marriage was less than 10 years in duration.

Note that there is an exception to the benefits percentages if you are a widow(er) and raising multiple children under the age of 16 or disabled. Benefits are usually capped, somewhere between 150% and 180% of the deceased person's benefit. If total survivors benefits paid to family members would exceed that amount, the benefits are proportionately reduced.

Survivors benefits will remain at the same percentage of the deceased spouse's benefits you are initially eligible for throughout the time that you receive them. In other words, if you are a widow(er) and your survivors benefits are 75% of your spouse's benefit because you took them before your FRA, they remain at 75% throughout the time you receive them.

Surviving spouses are entitled to a one-time payment of $255 if they live with the deceased person at the time of death.

Finally, for all survivors benefits, note that remarriage will make you ineligible for widow(er) benefits if it occurs before the age of 60. If you remarry at 60 or later, though, you remain eligible.

4. Combining survivors benefits and Social Security benefits on your own record

If you are eligible for both survivors benefits and Social Security benefits under your work record, you can receive the larger of the two .

There are also scenarios when managing them strategically can result in maximizing benefits over your lifetime.

Let's say you are 62 and your spouse recently passed away. You'd like to retire now. You are due to receive $2,000 per month if you wait until FRA on your survivors benefit, and $1,500 on your own work record if you retire at FRA.

But both survivors benefits and Social Security benefits are reduced if recipients take them before their FRA, and remain at the reduced level as long as you draw them.

If your FRA is 66, for example, your survivors benefits will be just $1,620 per month rather than the $2,000  you’d get at FRA. Your own Social Security benefits would be reduced by 25% if you take them at 62, making them just $1,125 per month if you take them now rather than the $1,500 you'd get at FRA. Claim both now, and you'd get $1,620 per month.

However, you can apply to receive the reduced benefits from your own record now while delaying the survivor benefit until FRA. That's give you $1,125 per month now, but you'd get a boost to $2,000 per month when you claim your survivor benefit at FRA. That's a tradeoff that can be worth making for many people.