Survivor's Benefits


Social Security--Survivors Benefits

Why We Hope You Will Read This Booklet

The loss of the family wage earner can be devastating to the survivors. This is an explanation of the benefits Social Security can provide for the family. This booklet is divided into two sections. If you are currently working, the first part tells you what kind of survivors benefits your tax dollars are paying for and how those benefits are earned. If someone in your family has died, the second part of the booklet explains how to sign up for Social Security benefits and what you need to know after benefits start.

Please Note: This booklet provides a general overview of Social Security survivors benefits. The information it contains is not intended to cover all provisions of the law. For specific

information about your case, contact Social Security.

Social Security's
Toll-Free Number
1-800-772-1213
Internet: http://www.ssa.gov

What's Inside

Part 1--If You're Working . . . What You Need To Know About Survivors Benefits

"Life Insurance" From Social Security

How You Earn Survivors Benefits

Who Can Get Survivors Benefits?

Special One-Time Death Benefit

Benefits For Surviving Divorced Spouses

How Much Are Benefits?

Part 2--If A Loved One Has Died . . . What You Need To Know About Survivors Benefits

How to Apply For Benefits

How Much Will You Get?

Maximum Family Benefits

How Work May Affect Your Benefits

If You Remarry

A Word About Medicare

Your Personal Information Is Safe With Social Security

For More Information

Other Booklets Available


Part 1--If You're Working ... What You Need To Know About Survivors Benefits

"Life Insurance" From Social Security

If you're like most people, you think only of retirement when you think of Social Security. But retirement checks are just one of the Social Security benefits people can get.

Part of the Social Security taxes you pay goes toward survivors insurance. In fact, the value of the survivors insurance you have under Social Security is probably more than the value of your commercial life insurance.

When someone who has worked and paid into Social Security dies, survivor benefits can be paid to certain family members. These include widows, widowers (and divorced widows and widowers), children, and dependent parents.

You, along with millions of other people, earn survivors insurance by working and paying Social Security taxes. Right now, 98 out of every 100 children could get benefits if a working parent should die. In fact, Social Security pays more benefits to children than any other federal program.

How You Earn Survivors Benefits

When you die, certain members of your family may be eligible for survivors benefits if you worked, paid Social Security taxes, and earned enough "credits." You can earn a maximum of four credits each year. The number of credits you need depends on your age when you die. The younger a person is, the fewer credits are needed to be eligible for survivors benefits but nobody needs more than 40 credits (10 years of work) to be eligible for any Social Security benefits.

Under a special rule, benefits can be paid to your children and your spouse who is caring for the children even though you don't have the number of credits needed. They can get benefits if you have credit for one and one half years of work in the three years just before your death.

Who Can Get Survivors Benefits?

When you die, Social Security survivors benefits can be paid to your:

  • Widow or widower--full benefits at 65 or older or reduced benefits as early as 60. A disabled widow or widower can get benefits at 50-60. The surviving spouse's benefits may be reduced if he or she also receives a pension from a job where Social Security taxes were not withheld. For more information, call Social Security to ask for the factsheet Government Pension Offset (Publication No. 05-10007).
  • Widow or widower at any age if she or he takes care of your child under 16 or disabled who gets benefits.
  • Unmarried children under 18 (or up to age 19 if they are attending elementary or secondary school full time). Your child can get benefits at any age if he or she was disabled before 22 and remains disabled. Under certain circumstances, benefits can also be paid to your stepchildren, grandchildren, or adopted children.
  • Dependent parents at 62 or older.

Special One-Time Death Benefit

There is a special one-time payment of $255 that can be made when you die if you have enough work "credits." This payment can be made only to your spouse or minor children if they meet certain requirements.

Benefits for Surviving Divorced Spouses

If you've been divorced, your former wife or husband can get benefits under the same circumstances as your widow or widower if your marriage lasted 10 years or more. Your former spouse, however, does not have to meet the length-of-marriage rule if she or he is caring for your child who is under 16 or disabled and who is also getting benefits on your Social Security record. The child must be your former spouse's natural or legally adopted child.

Benefits paid to a surviving divorced spouse who is 60 or older (50-60 if disabled) will not affect the benefit rates for other survivors getting benefits.

How Much Are Benefits?

How much your family can get from Social Security depends on your average lifetime earnings. That means the higher your earnings, the higher their benefits will be.

If you would like to get an estimate of the Social Security survivors benefits that could be paid to your family, call or visit Social Security to ask for a FormSSA-7004 (Request for Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement.)

Within four to six weeks after you complete and return the form to Social Security, you will receive a statement showing an estimate of survivors benefits that could be paid, as well as estimates of retirement and disability benefits and other important information. There's no charge for this service.

Part 2--If A Loved One Has Died ... What You Need To Know About Survivors Benefits

How To Apply For Benefits

How you sign up for survivors benefits depends on whether or not you're getting other Social Security benefits.

If You Aren't Getting Social Security Benefits

You should apply for survivors benefits promptly because, in some cases, benefits may not be retroactive. You can apply by telephone or at any Social Security office.

We need certain information to process your application. It's helpful if you have it when you apply. But don't delay applying if you don't have everything. The people at Social Security will help you get it. We need either original documents or copies certified by the agency that issued them.

The information needed includes:

  • Your Social Security number, as well as the worker's;
  • Your birth certificate;
  • Your marriage certificate if you're a widow or widower;
  • Your divorce papers if you're applying as a surviving divorced spouse;
  • Dependent children's Social Security numbers, if available;
  • Deceased worker's W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year;
  • The name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be directly deposited into your account.

If You're Already Getting Social Security Benefits

If you're getting benefits as a wife or husband on your spouse's record when he or she dies, you should report the death to Social Security and we will change your payments to survivors benefits. If we need more information, we'll contact you.

If you're getting benefits on your own record, you'll need to complete an application to get survivors benefits. Call or visit Social Security and we'll check to see if you can get more money as a widow or widower. We'll need to see your spouse's death certificate to process your claim.

Benefits for any children will automatically be changed to survivors benefits after the death is reported to us. We'll contact you if we need more information.

How Much Will You Get?

The amount of your benefit is based on the earnings of the person who died. The more he or she paid into Social Security, the higher your benefits will be.

The amount you will get is a percentage of the deceased's basic Social Security benefit. The percentage depends on your age and the type of benefit you are eligible for. Here are the most typical situations.

  • Widow or widower age 65 or older: 100 percent
  • Widow or widower age 60-64: About 71-94 percent
  • Widow any age with a child under age 16: 75 percent
  • Children: 75 percent

Maximum Family Benefits

There is a limit to the amount of money that can be paid to you and other family members each month. The limit varies, but is generally equal to about 150 to 180 percent of the deceased's benefit rate. If the sum of the benefits payable to the family members is greater than this limit, the benefits will be reduced proportionately.

Retirement Benefits For Widow(ers)

If you are receiving widows or widowers (including divorced widows or widowers) benefits, you should remember that you can switch to your own retirement benefits (assuming you're eligible and your retirement rate is higher than your widow's rate) as early as age 62. In many cases, a widow(er) can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate at age 65. The rules are complicated and vary depending on your situation, so you should talk to a Social Security representative about the options available to you.

How Work May Affect Your Benefits

If you get Social Security survivors benefits, the amount of your benefits may be reduced if your earnings exceed certain limits. To find out what the limits are this year and how earnings above those limits reduce your Social Security benefits, contact Social Security to request the leaflet How Work Affects Your Benefits (Publication No. 05-10069). There's no limit once you reach 70.

Your earnings will reduce only your survivors benefits, not the benefits of other family members.

If You Remarry

In general, you can't get survivors benefits if you remarry. But, remarriage after 60 (50 if disabled) will not prevent benefit payments on your former spouse's record. And, at 62 or older, you may get benefits on the record of your new spouse if they are higher.

A Word About Medicare

Medicare is a health insurance plan for people who are 65 or older. People who are disabled or have kidney failure also can get Medicare.

Medicare has two parts--hospital insurance and medical insurance. Most people have both parts.

Hospital insurance, sometimes called Part A, covers inpatient hospital care and certain follow-up care. The worker already paid for it as part of his or her Social Security taxes while he or she was working.

Medical insurance, sometimes called Part B, pays for physicians' services and some other services not covered by hospital insurance. Medical insurance is optional, and a premium is charged.

Some people are already getting Social Security benefits when they turn 65, and their Medicare starts automatically. Others must file an application. For more information, call us to ask for the booklet Medicare (Publication No. 05-10043).

Help For Low-Income Medicare Beneficiaries

If you get Medicare and have low income and few resources, your state may pay your Medicare premiums and, in some cases, other "out-of-pocket" Medicare expenses such as deductibles and coinsurance. Only your state can decide if you qualify. To find out if you do, contact your state or local welfare office or Medicaid agency. For more general information about the program, contact Social Security and ask for a copy of the publication Medicare Savings For Qualified Beneficiaries (HCFA Publication No. 02184).

Your Personal Information Is Safe With Social Security

Social Security keeps personal information on millions of people. That information such as your Social Security number, earnings record, age, and address is personal and confidential. Generally, we will discuss this information only with you. We need your permission if you want someone else to help with your Social Security business.

If you ask a friend or family member to call Social Security, you need to be with them when they call so we will know that you want them to help. The Social Security representative will ask your permission to discuss your Social Security business with that person.

If you send a friend or family member to our local office to conduct your Social Security business, send your written consent with them. Only with your written permission can SSA discuss your personal information with them and provide the answers to your questions.

In the case of a minor child, the natural parent or legal guardian can act on the child's behalf in taking care of the child's Social Security business.

The privacy of your records is guaranteed. There are times when the law requires Social Security to give information to other government agencies to conduct other government health or welfare programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, and food stamps. Programs receiving information from Social Security are prohibited from sharing that information.

For More Information

You can get more information 24 hours a day by calling Social Security's toll-free number: 1-800-772-1213. You can speak to a service representative between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on business days. Our lines are busiest early in the week and early in the month, so if your business can wait, it's best to call at other times. Whenever you call, have your Social Security number handy.

If you have a touch-tone phone, recorded information and services are available 24 hours a day, including weekends and holidays.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing may call our toll-free "TTY" number, 1-800-325-0778, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on business days.

The Social Security Administration treats all calls confidentially whether they're made to our toll-free numbers or to one of our local offices. We also want to make sure that you

receive accurate and courteous service. That's why we have a second Social Security representative monitor some incoming and outgoing telephone calls.


Other Booklets Available

Social Security has a number of publications that contain information about other Social Security programs. Contact Social Security to get a free copy of any of these publications. They include:

  • Understanding The Benefits (Publication No. 05-10024)-- A comprehensive explanation of all the Social Security programs.
  • Retirement Benefits (Publication No. 05-10035)--Explains Social Security retirement benefits.
  • Disability Benefits (Publication No. 05-10029)--Explains Social Security disability benefits.
  • Medicare (Publication No. 05-10043)--Explains Medicare hospital insurance and medical insurance.
  • SSI (Publication No. 05-11000)--Explains this program which provides a basic income to people 65 or older, disabled, or blind who have limited income and resources.
  • Benefits For Children With Disabilities (Publication No. 05-10026)--Explains benefits available to children with disabilities.

All these publications are available in Spanish.

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