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How to Claim Social Security Survivor Benefits

By Selena Maranjian – Updated Jan 17, 2017 at 5:13PM

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When someone dies, their widow, widower, and a host of other folks may be able to collect survivor benefits.

Photo: Stephan Ridgway, Flickr

It's hard to see any bright side when a loved one dies, but the U.S. government offers a little comfort to many grievers -- in the form of Social Security survivor benefits. Take a few minutes to learn just what these benefits are and how to claim Social Security survivor benefits.

Survivor benefits

The main benefit for surviving spouses is that they may be able to receive payments from Social Security if their late partner worked enough to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits. Some others may be eligible, too. Here's the list of possible recipients, according to the Social Security Administration.

  • The spouse of the deceased, aged 60 or older.
  • The spouse of the deceased, aged 50 or older, if disabled.
  • The spouse of the deceased at any age, if he or she is caring for the deceased's child who is younger than 16 or disabled.
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is younger than 18, or younger than 20 if still a full-time student in elementary or secondary school or 18 or older and with a disability that began before age 22.
  • A stepchild, grandchild, stepgrandchild, or adopted child under certain circumstances.
  • Parents aged 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support.
  • A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances.

A widow or widower can start collecting retirement benefits as early as age 60, but they will be reduced. To collect the full benefits, he or she will have to wait and begin collecting at their full retirement age, which is 65, 66, or 67, depending on the birth year.

Children may also qualify for survivor benefits. Photo: Vladimir Pustovit, Flickr.

The benefit readjustment at death
Here's another Social Security detail related to a spouse's death that you need to know: Imagine two spouses who are both collecting Social Security retirement benefits, with one receiving $800 per month and the other $1,200, for a total of $2,000 coming into the household. If the spouse with the $1,200 benefit dies, the widow or widower can begin collecting the $1,200 benefit instead of the $800 one. The household will lose one of the benefits, it's true, but it will be the smaller one.

The odd little $255 benefit
In addition to the benefits described above, there's also a strange little one-time payment of $255 that's available to a surviving spouse who was living with the partner who died. It may also be available to a surviving spouse who was living apart from the deceased but receiving benefits based on the deceased's record, or a surviving child who is eligible for benefits based on the deceased's record.

If you're wondering why such a benefit exists, the answer is that it's quite old and was originally  meant to help with burial expenses. It has not been adjusted for inflation, though, and has remained the same for some forty-plus years. Thus, with the median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial sitting at more than $7,000  as of 2015, the $255 isn't going to go far.

How to claim Social Security survivor benefits
The first step to claiming Social Security survivor benefits is to inform  Social Security of the death. This is often done by the funeral home taking care of the deceased, if the family provided the deceased's Social Security number. It's important to be sure that Social Security is notified soon after the death, so that, for example, any retirement benefits being paid to the deceased will be stopped. (If Social Security is notified after a post-death payment is made, it will have to be repaid.) Also, the sooner Social Security is notified, the sooner it will be able to make payments to whoever is entitled to them -- and some benefits are not  retroactively paid.

If you're going to do notify Social Security yourself, know that you can't  do so online. You'll have to either visit your local Social Security office or speak with the agency on the phone (at 800-772-1213). It's often best to call and make an appointment to visit your local office, to reduce your waiting time.

When you speak with Social Security about the death, you can inquire about getting survivor benefits, about getting retirement benefits and/or about receiving the one-time $255 lump-sum benefit. Be prepared with your Social Security number and that of the deceased, as well as the date of death. Birth and death certificates will likely also  come in handy.

A good first step is to visit the Social Security website,, to gather more information about eligibility and other rules.

Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article.  We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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