Rules for Social Security Survivor Benefits

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The death of a wage-earning family member leaves more than grief. It also leaves a hole in a family's income. Social Security Survivors Insurance provides benefits to the spouse and children of deceased workers. According to the Social Security Administration's booklet "Survivors Benefits," 98 out of 100 children may be able to receive payments if a working parent dies. Benefits depend on the number of years worked and income. However, some limitations and rules regarding the payout of benefits exist.

Applying for Benefits

The application for survivor benefits should begin as soon as possible. Sometimes, benefits are paid from the time of the application rather than the worker's death. Beneficiaries can apply either over the phone or at a Social Security Administration office. Be prepared with the following documents: proof of worker's death, worker's social security number, birth certificates and social security numbers of the spouse and dependent children, marriage certificates for widows or widowers, divorce papers for divorced spouses and the deceased's W-2s.

Credits Needed for Survivor Benefits

To qualify for survivor benefits, a worker must have accumulated a certain number of credits before death. For each year where a worker paid Social Security taxes, she receives four credits. The younger a worker is when she dies, the fewer credits she needs. However, 40 credits (10 working years) are sufficient for anyone to qualify. In a case where the deceased has a minor child, the minimum number of credits decreases to six in the three years preceding the worker's death.

Benefits for Spouses

Widows or widowers are entitled to receive full benefits when they reach retirement age, which is 66 for those born 1945 to 1955 and 67 for those born after 1967. Partial widow or widower benefits can begin as early as 60. Additionally, if the spouse is disabled, benefits begin at 50. A widow or widower receives 75 percent of benefits at anytime if caring for a child under 16 years old.

Benefits for Children and other dependents

Unmarried, biological children under the age of 18 -- 19 if they are enrolled in school-- are eligible to receive 75 percent of benefits. If a child became disabled by the age of 22, they can receive continuous benefits if they remain disabled. Stepchildren, grandchildren or adopted children are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

If the deceased worker provided half of the support to his or her parents, those dependent parents may also eligible for benefits if they are older than 62. (See Reference 1)

Benefits for divorced spouses

A divorced spouse may qualify if she is over the age of 60 and married to the deceased worker for at least 10 years. This rule does not apply if the divorced spouse is caring for the deceased's minor (under 16) or disabled child. If the divorced spouse receive benefits for this type of situation, it decreases the amount of benefits other family members receive.

Reduction of Benefits

Remarrying before the age of 60 prevents the payment of benefits to the widow or widower. At 62, benefits may be based on your current spouse's wages if those benefits are greater than your former spouse's. Working before retirement age reduces the amount of benefits you are qualified to receive.