Nobody likes to think about death, whether it's your own or those of loved ones. However, if you are nearing retirement, it's important to understand Social Security survivor benefits from both aspects – what benefits your family receives when you die, and what benefits you would receive if your spouse dies first.
Your benefits are determined by two factors: the total years you have worked; and the amount of income on which you paid Social Security taxes. This forms the baseline for spousal and survivor benefits. If you choose to draw benefits before reaching full retirement age (scaled from age 65 to age 67 depending on your birth date), you not only reduce your monthly benefit amount, but you reduce your spouse's survivor benefits as well. For example, drawing at age 62 instead of 67 reduces both benefits by 30%.
If you are receiving benefits at the time of your spouse's death, you will need to notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) office of the sad event; they will change your status to survivor's benefits. If you are receiving benefits from your own work, the SSA office will help you determine whether survivor's benefits or your own benefits are greater. If survivor's benefits are greater, they can assist you in applying for a change of status.
If you are not receiving benefits, you must apply for survivor's benefits upon your spouse's death. It is important to avoid delay – benefits are paid from the time of application, not from time of death. You will need:
- Proof of Death – This can be provided by the funeral home, or by a death certificate.
- Social Security Numbers – You need to supply numbers for you, your deceased spouse, and any dependent children that have Social Security numbers.
- Certificates – Your birth certificate and marriage certificate and/or divorce papers, whichever applies. You will also need birth certificates for dependent children.
- Tax Forms – Your deceased spouse's W-2 or self-employment tax forms from the most recent year.
- Bank Information – Necessary to set up the direct deposit of your benefits into your account.
Cases vary, but generally, survivor's benefits as a percentage of your deceased spouse's benefits are 100% at your full retirement age, 71-99% if you begin drawing after age 60 but before your full retirement age, or at age 50 if you are disabled and the disability occurred within seven years of your spouse's death. You may receive 75% of benefits if you are any age and caring for children below age 16; eligible children may also receive 75% of benefits. The maximum family limit varies, but typically, it is from 150-180%. Check your local SSA office to see what applies to your situation.
- Divorce/Remarriage – If divorced, you are still entitled to survivor's benefits as long as you are 62 or older, and were married to the decedent for at least 10 years. Survivor benefits continue after remarriage if you are over age 60 – and at age 62, you may apply to switch to your new spouse’s benefits if they are higher.
- Children – Your unmarried children's benefits stop at age 18 unless the child is disabled.
- Parents – Dependent parents are eligible for survivor benefits if you provided at least half of their support prior to your death.
- Death Payment – A one-time lump sum death payment of $255 is available under certain conditions. You must apply within two years of your spouse's death.
The SSA has a helpful website and online resources, as well as many offices nationwide, to assist you. When the unfortunate time comes that a spouse passes away, be sure to notify your local SSA office of his or her death, and let them help determine the best situation for you. Then apply for any changes immediately so there is no delay in receiving the benefits due to you.