About Social Security Survivor Benefits

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Dealing with the death of a loved one is a distressing time for any family. In addition to being an emotionally devastating experience, for many families it is a financially stressful time as well. Social Security survivor benefits help alleviate some of that stress by providing benefits to eligible surviving family members including children, dependent parents, widows and widowers.

Earning Survivor Benefits

To qualify for Social Security survivor benefits, you must have accumulated enough Social Security credits through work. In general, the number of credits required to receive benefits for your survivors depends on your age at the time of death. Older people require more credits for family members to receive benefits. However no one requires more than 40 credits to qualify for any Social Security benefit. Anyone who works and earns wages or self-employment income can earn up to four credits each year. As of 2010, one credit is received for each $1,120 of income earned.

Monthly Benefits

Monthly survivor benefits depend on the deceased worker’s lifetime earnings. The more income earned by the deceased, the higher the benefit amount. Social Security calculates the actual benefit payment based on the deceased worker’s basic benefit amount. For example, a widow at full retirement age or older generally receives 100 percent of the worker’s basic benefit amount, while children of the deceased worker are eligible for 75 percent of the basic benefit amount.

One-Time Payment Benefit

As of 2010, a one-time payment of $255 is available for a surviving spouse who was living with the deceased. A surviving spouse who was living apart from the deceased may still be eligible for the payment if she had been receiving certain Social Security benefits on the deceased’s record. If the deceased had no surviving spouse, the payment can be made to an eligible child.

Eligibility for Monthly Benefits

Monthly benefits are available for certain family members including a surviving spouse of any age who is caring for the deceased’s children who are under age 16 or disabled; a widow or widower age 60 or older (or if disabled, age 50 or older); a dependent parent of the deceased who is age 62 or older; an unmarried child who is under age 18 (or age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22); an unmarried child who is age 18 or 19 and is a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school; and under certain circumstances, a surviving divorced spouse.

How to Apply

Eligible beneficiaries should apply for benefits as soon as possible. If you are not currently receiving Social Security benefits, you can apply by telephone or in person at any Social Security office. If you are currently receiving Social Security benefits based on your spouse’s work, upon reporting the death to Social Security, your benefit payments will be converted to survivor benefits. Those receiving Social Security benefits based on their own work should contact Social Security to determine if they are entitled to additional benefits as a widow or widower.