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Everything You Need to Know About Social Security Survivors Benefits

By Kailey Hagen - Dec 20, 2019 at 6:08AM

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Losing a loved one takes its toll, but with survivors benefits, it doesn't have to destroy your finances.

When a loved one dies, it can place a lot of financial strain on their remaining family members, especially if the deceased was the primary breadwinner. Most households will have to make some financial changes to adjust to their new circumstances, but they may be eligible for some government assistance to help ease their burden.

Social Security survivors benefits are available to family members of the deceased who meet certain criteria. How much you'll get depends in part upon your relationship to the deceased and the deceased's Social Security benefit. Here's a closer look at what to expect.

Person handing over a stack of hundred dollar bills to another person.

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Who qualifies for Social Security survivors benefits?

No one will receive any survivors benefits unless the deceased worker had worked long enough to qualify for Social Security. Anyone who has 10 years of qualifying work will be eligible to have family members get survivor benefits, and in many cases, survivors can get benefits even if the deceased worker had a shorter work history, depending on the deceased worker's age at death. If you're unsure whether you qualify for Social Security benefits, contact the Social Security Administration (SSA).

As long as the person does qualify, the following relatives are eligible for survivors benefits:

  • Widow or widower
  • Unmarried children, including adopted and stepchildren, younger than 18 or up to 19 if attending secondary school full-time
  • Unmarried grandchildren, adopted grandchildren, and step-grandchildren, younger than 18 or up to 19 if attending secondary school full-time and if the deceased was responsible for their care
  • Adult children, including adopted and stepchildren, who were disabled before 22
  • Divorced spouses if they were married to the deceased for at least 10 years and do not remarry before 60 or before 50 if disabled
  • Divorced spouses, regardless of marriage length, if they are caring for the deceased's child aged 16 or younger or a disabled child of any age
  • Dependent parents 62 or older if the deceased was paying for half or more of their care

How much money will you get?

Your survivors benefit depends on your relationship to the deceased, the amount the deceased earned in his or her lifetime, and the age at which you begin collecting benefits. Widows, widowers, and ex-spouses may begin claiming survivors benefits at any age if they are caring for the deceased worker's child who is 16 or younger or disabled. If this is not true, they must wait until 60 or 50 if they are disabled. But starting this early will permanently reduce their benefits.

Surviving spouses and ex-spouses are entitled to 100% of the deceased worker's benefit if they wait until their full retirement age (FRA) to claim. This is 66 or 67, depending on your birth year. Starting below your full retirement age means you'll get only 71% to 99% of the deceased worker's benefit per check. Those with disabled children or children under 16 who begin claiming benefits will receive 75% of the deceased worker's benefit per check, but their children will each qualify for 75% of the benefit amount as well.

Surviving divorced spouses who claim benefits based on their ex's work record will not affect the deceased's new spouse's benefits, if he or she remarried. But if the surviving ex-spouse remarries before he or she turns 60, they will no longer be able to claim their ex's survivors benefits. If they remarry after 60, they can continue to claim benefits.

Qualifying children who are disabled and receiving disability benefits will receive the difference between their eligible survivors benefits and their disability benefits. For example, if a child receives $750 in disability benefits and is eligible for $1,250 in survivors benefits, they would continue to receive their $750 in disability benefits and they would get an additional $500 in survivors benefits each month for a total of $1,250.

A single dependent parent of the deceased worker can expect 82.5% of the worker's benefit amount. If the deceased worker was caring for both of his or her parents, each parent is entitled to 75% of the worker's benefit.

Are there any limitations on survivors benefits?

Widows, widowers, and surviving ex-spouses may not claim survivors benefits if they are not caring for any qualifying children and are under 60 (or 50 if disabled). They will become eligible for these benefits once they reach the ages above, assuming they do not remarry before then, but in the meantime, they must rely on their own savings or a life insurance policy if the deceased had one.

The Social Security Administration will only pay out a maximum of 150% to 180% of the deceased worker's benefit amount to all qualifying beneficiaries. If you're unsure how much you're entitled to, contact the SSA for more information.

You must also be mindful of the Social Security earnings test. Workers who are below their FRA for all of 2020 will lose $1 from their survivors benefits for every $2 they earn over $18,240. Workers who will reach their FRA in 2020 will lose $1 for every $3 they earn over $48,600 if they hit this amount before their FRA. The good news is this money isn't lost forever. When you reach your FRA, the government will redo your benefit calculation to account for any money it withheld and you will get larger checks in the future.

How do I apply for survivors benefits?

Contact the SSA to begin the survivors benefit application process. You must have a copy of the deceased's death certificate and his or her latest tax returns. You must also know their Social Security number and have documentation to prove your relationship to the deceased, like a marriage certificate for a widow or widower or a birth certificate for a qualifying child. Have your bank account information on hand, too, so the SSA knows where to deposit the funds.

Survivors benefits can never replace the presence of a loved one, but they can ease your financial struggle a little. Contact the Social Security Administration today if you think you may qualify to see what it can offer you.

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