Social Security Benefits for Widows and Widowers

© The Balance 2018

The loss of a spouse is painful enough, and then you have to deal with the financial impact.

The rules for collecting a Social Security widow benefit depend on a number of factors, but here’s a primer to help you unravel it all. A lot depends on whether the survivor takes the benefit before they reach full retirement age and whether the deceased had begun collecting benefits before reaching theirs.  

Who Is Eligible?

Generally speaking, if you were married for nine months or more to someone who has passed away, and they had worked long enough that at retirement they would receive their own Social Security (even if they were too young to start getting benefits), then you are eligible for a widow/widower benefit.

But you have to be at least 60 to collect a widow/widower benefit (unless you are disabled or caring for a child of the deceased's who is under 16.) So, for example, if you are 60 when your husband dies at 55, you would be eligible for widow benefits, even though he hadn’t started his own benefits.

If your spouse has died, the funeral home should alert the Social Security Administration, but if it doesn’t, you can call the SSA yourself at 1-800-772-1213. You’re not allowed to apply for survivor benefits online.  

Here’s how the widow/widower benefit works. (If you have dependents, child benefits may be available, but they work differently than the widow/widower benefits covered here.)

How Much Can You Get? 

First, Social Security pays a one-time death benefit of $255 if the surviving spouse lived with the deceased. More importantly, though, is the ongoing benefit. At a basic level, the monthly amount is dependent on the deceased’s lifetime earnings and the Social Security benefit he or she was receiving or would have received. The higher the earnings, the higher the benefit. 

Beyond that, there are specific rules pertaining to the survivor’s age and if and when the deceased began collecting benefits.  Here are four main factors that go into the calculation:

  • Whether the surviving spouse is going to collect the benefit before their Full Retirement Age (FRA) of 66 or 67. They will get less than they otherwise would if they collect any earlier.
  • Whether the deceased spouse had begun collecting benefits
  • Whether the deceased spouse had taken early retirement (and gotten the corresponding reduced benefits.)
  • How much the deceased spouse would have received at FRA. This is also known as the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) or basic benefit.   

Let’s assume for now that the widow or widower has reached FRA, so there won’t be a reduction for early collection. Here are some scenarios to illustrate how the other factors may impact the benefit:

If the surviving spouse is at FRA and the deceased spouse had begun benefits…

...at their FRA or later, the surviving spouse is entitled to what the deceased spouse was getting, including any delayed retirement credits.

...before they reached their FRA, then the surviving spouse is entitled to either what the deceased spouse was getting, or 82.5% of their PIA amount, whichever is greater. (The 82.5% rule is meant to protect the survivor from being overly penalized by a spouse who took early retirement.) 

If the surviving spouse is at FRA and the deceased spouse had not begun benefits…

...and died prior to FRA, then the widow(er) is entitled to what their deceased spouse would have gotten at their FRA. So, for example, if your spouse passes away at 64 and had not started collecting benefits, then you would receive what they would have gotten at their FRA age of 66. 

...and died at FRA or older, then the surviving spouse is entitled to whatever the deceased spouse would have gotten for benefits, including any delayed retirement credits.

Now, don’t forget the age of the survivor when he or she applies for the benefit can have a big impact.

There is no reduction in the benefit amounts discussed above if the survivor has reached FRA. But before then, the survivor gets somewhere between 71.5% and 99% of what they would otherwise be entitled to, depending on how much younger they are. So, for example, if a widow takes the benefit at 60, and her husband was getting $1,000 a month after reaching his FRA, her benefit would be $715.

If the survivor is already collecting their own Social Security check, the SSA will help them determine if they’ll get more as a widow or widower. They can collect whichever benefit amount is higher, but not both. 

Exceptions  

There are a number of important caveats to these basic rules.

  •  No matter how old you are, if you are caring for the deceased’s child, and the child is under 16 or disabled and collecting benefits, you can still collect a widow or widower’s benefit. The amount in that case is 75% of the deceased spouse’s basic benefit.
  • If your spouse dies early enough that you remarry before turning 60 (or 50 if you are disabled,) you can’t collect a widow benefit. If you remarry after those ages, you will continue to qualify for the benefit.  
  • If your children or dependent parents are eligible for benefits, your benefit may be affected because there is a maximum amount disbursed per family. Generally this is between 150% and 180% of the basic benefit of the deceased worker.

Check the SSA’s website for the FRA schedule for widow/widowers. It’s slightly different than for retirement benefits. (FRA for survivors born after 1945 is either 66 or 67.) 

Widow Benefits for Ex-Spouses

If you were married to your ex for at least 10 years, and you do not remarry before age 60, then you are eligible to collect a benefit when your ex dies, even if they have remarried. If you are caring for his or her child, and the child is under 16, the 10-year minimum is waived. Generally, the benefit is calculated just as it is for a spouse who isn’t divorced.

Swapping Benefits

If the surviving spouse works and is or will be eligible for their own Social Security benefit, one option is to take a widow/widower’s benefit first, and later switch to their own benefit, or vice versa.

For example, a widow could have had these two options (numbers are for illustration only:)

  1. At 60, take a widow benefit of $18,180 a year, then at 70 switch to her own benefit of $20,304.
  2. At 62, take her own benefit of $10,752 a year, then at 66 switch to her widow’s benefit of $24,480 a year.

At first glance, taking the money at 60 might seem like a good idea, but choosing option 2 will provide her more lifetime income (at least $30,000 more) and a more secure inflation-adjusted income at age 66 and beyond (assuming she lives to age 86 or later).

Bottom Line

Survivors of deceased workers account for about 12 percent of Social Security benefits paid, and in 2019, 6 million survivors received $7 billion in benefits in one month alone, according to the SSA. Seventy percent of single elderly retirees get at least half their income from Social Security. If you’ve lost a spouse and are ready to look at your finances, consider using a Social Security calculator that can account for widow benefits. An informed decision can mean more financial security as you navigate the next phase of your life. 

Article Sources

  1. Social Security Administration. "Survivors Benefits," Page 1. Accessed Oct. 6, 2019.


  2. Social Security Administration. "Code of Federal Regulations: 404.335. How do I become entitled to widow's or widower's benefits?" Accessed Oct. 6, 2019.


  3. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Survivors/Planning for Your Survivors," Accessed Oct. 6, 2019.


  4. Social Security Administration. "Survivors Benefits," Page 3. Accessed Oct. 6, 2019.


  5. Social Security Administration. "Survivors Benefits," Page 6. Accessed Oct. 6, 2019.


  6. Social Security Administration. "Widows and Social Security, by David A. Weaver, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 70, No. 3, 2010," Accessed Oct. 6, 2019.


  7. Social Security Administration. "Social Security Handbook. 407. Amount of Widow(er)'s Insurance Benefit," Accessed Oct. 6, 2019.