Social Security Survivor Benefits for a Spouse

© The Balance 2018

Upon the death of a spouse, you are eligible for a Social Security survivor benefit as long as you have been married for at least nine months. (This length of marriage requirement is waived if you are caring for a child of the deceased spouse who is under the age of 16.)

At What Age can You Begin Your Social Security Survivor Benefit?

You can collect a monthly survivor benefit as early as age 60, but at this age you will only receive about 70% of the amount you could get if you wait until your survivor full retirement age (which is age 66 for people born in 1945-1956 and will gradually increase to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later).

Full retirement age to qualify for survivor benefits uses a different date of birth table than full retirement age to qualify for your retirement benefit.

If you are disabled, you can collect a Social Security survivor’s benefit as early as age 50.

You can collect at any age if you are caring for a child of the deceased spouse who is under the age of 16.

You can collect an immediate one-time death benefit payment of $255 at any age.

Survivor Benefit Basics

The benefit calculation depends on whether your or your spouse had or had not started receiving benefits. Here are the basics on how it works:

For couples who have not started benefits yet—you can maximize the survivor benefit that is available by having the highest earner of the two wait until age 70 to begin Social Security benefits. It creates a larger monthly benefit amount that becomes the survivor benefit when the first spouse passes.

If you and your spouse had both already started claiming, the higher benefit amount becomes the survivor benefit, and the lower of the two benefit amounts will be stopped.

If your deceased spouse (or ex-spouse) had begun benefits, but you had not, you will have some choices to make about when you claim the survivor benefit. In many cases, this choice can be made in a way that is likely to give you more lifetime income. It depends on the age at which you begin benefits.

How Much Will You Get?

The actual monthly dollar amount you receive will depend on how much money (earnings that were subject to Social Security payroll taxes) your spouse or ex-spouse made over their lifetime.

Each person’s Social Security statement provides an estimate of survivor’s benefits.

Below are some guidelines to use to help you estimate how much you may be eligible for as a survivor benefit.

Neither of You Had Started Benefits

If neither of you had started benefits yet, and you wait until your survivor full retirement age (likely your age 66 or 67) or older to apply for your widow/widower benefits, you will receive 100% of your deceased spouse’s basic benefit amount. It means if they were eligible to get $1,650 a month at their full retirement age, you would get $1,650 a month by waiting until your full retirement age to file. 

Survivor’s benefits include the effect of delayed retirement credits. It means if a deceased spouse was already past age 66 or 67 and had not started taking Social Security (they can delay until their age 70), it may result in a higher survivor benefit for you than if they had filed earlier. You can get what the would have gotten at that later age.

Reductions to Benefits

You can apply for Social Security survivor benefits as early as age 60. If you file between age 60 and your survivor full retirement age, you will receive somewhere between 71% and 99% of your deceased spouse’s basic benefit amount. (The amount scales up for each month that you are closer to your full retirement age.)

If you collect a survivor benefit and you have not yet reached full retirement age, you can lose some of your benefits by working. It happens if your earnings are in excess of the earnings limit.

You or Your Spouse Had Started Benefits, or You Are Caring for a Young Child

Once you and your spouse are both receiving Social Security benefits, upon the death of your spouse, you will continue to receive the larger of your benefit—or your spouse’s—but not both.

If your spouse had started benefits, but you had not, you can choose to collect a survivor benefit now, then switch to your benefit at your age 70 if your benefit would be larger at that point.

At any age, if you are caring for a child younger than age 16, you will receive 75% of the deceased worker’s benefit amount.

Benefits for Ex-Spouses

If you are an ex-spouse but were married at least 10 years, you are eligible for the spousal survivor benefit—even if your ex-spouse remarried. 

When Should You Claim a Survivor's Benefit?

On the Widows, Widowers & Other Survivors page of the Social Security website it says, "There are disadvantages and advantages to taking your survivors benefit before your full retirement age. The advantage is that you collect benefits for a longer period. The disadvantage is that your survivor’s benefit may be reduced."

Many of you will be eligible to collect a survivor benefit and then when you reach age 70 you can switch to your retirement benefit if your own would be larger at that point. The Social Security office may not suggest this to you - but you can do it.

This decision has a lifelong impact.

If your goal is to minimize longevity risk, which is the risk of outliving your money, you will want to consider a strategy that gives you the most lifetime income.

Sometimes that means not starting benefits right away, even if you are eligible for them. If you waited until 66 or 67 and get more, then if you live longer than average life expectancy, this will result in providing you with a higher total payout from Social Security over your lifetime.

Documents You Need to Claim a Social Security Survivor Benefit

When you apply for Social Security survivor benefits you will need to take the following documents with you:

  • Proof of death—either from a funeral home or death certificate;
  • Your Social Security number, as well as the deceased workers;
  • Your birth certificate;
  • Your marriage certificate, if you are a widow or widower;
  • Dependent children’s Social Security numbers, if available, and birth certificates;
  • Deceased worker’s W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year; and
  • The name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be deposited directly into your account.

Article Sources

  1. Social Security Administration. " Code of Federal Regulations: §404.335. How Do I Become Entitled to Widow's or Widower's Benefits?" Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  2. United States Social Security Administration. "Benefits for Your Spouse." Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  3. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Survivors | Receiving Survivors Benefits Early." Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  4. Social Security Administration. "Full Retirement Age for Survivors Born Between 1945 And 1956: 66." Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  5. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Survivors | If You Are The Survivor." Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  6. Social Security Administration. "Survivors Benefits," Page 6. Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  7. Social Security Administration. "Delayed Retirement Credits," Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  8. Social Security Administration. "Getting Benefits While Working." Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  9. Social Security Administration. "If You Are Divorced." Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.

  10. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Survivors | How to Apply." Accessed Dec. 18, 2019.