As with many government programs, the rules for Social Security survivor benefits can seem complicated. Surviving spouses may receive benefits if they have reached a certain age; have not remarried; or have children age 16 or younger. But even these general requirements have contingencies. Survivor spouse benefits are not among the benefits you can apply for online. A survivor must provide a copy of the spouse's death certificate to apply.
Generally, surviving spouses are eligible for full Social Security survivor benefits when they reach full retirement age. For people born before 1962, full retirement age is 66; for those born after that, it is 67. Widows or widowers can receive reduced benefits, however, as early as age 60 or even age 50 if they are disabled. The amount received depends on the deceased's average lifetime earnings, which can be found on the annual Social Security statement.
If a person was married for at least 10 years to the one who died, he or she is eligible for benefits at age 60, according to the Social Security website. The benefit given to the deceased's former spouse will not affect the benefit received by anyone else on the worker's record.
When There Are Kids
If a spouse is caring for the deceased's child, whether naturally born or legally adopted, and the child is under age 16 or is disabled, that spouse is immediately eligible for benefits. This applies even if the marriage did not last 10 years. A widow or widower alone generally receives 100 percent of the worker's benefit amount, while the widow or widower with a child receives up to 180 percent of the worker's benefit amount.
If you remarry before age 60, you may not be eligible for survivor benefits from your former spouse. If you remarry after age 60, you are eligible for benefits. At age 62, you are eligible for benefits on your new spouse, if the benefit is higher than the previous spouse.
Jane Doyle has been writing for newspapers and magazines for more than 30 years. She served as associate editor for a business/lifestyle publication and has written articles for magazines ranging from "Bank Director" to "Natural Home." Doyle holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas.