Social Security Survivor Benefits for a Spouse

© The Balance 2018

The loss of a spouse is painful. It can be even harder when you have to make tough choices about money soon after. Whether and when to take Social Security is one of those choices.

The rules for getting Social Security survivor benefits depend on a number of factors. Learn more about what's involved to help you make a smart choice.

Who Can Get Survivor Benefits and at What Age?

After the death of a spouse, you can get a monthly Social Security survivor benefit. This is true as long as you have been married for at least nine months.

If you are caring for the child of your deceased spouse, and the child is under the age of 16, you can claim your spousal payment after their death even if you were married much less time.

You can collect a Social Security survivor benefit as early as age 60. If you are disabled, you can collect this payment as early as age 50.

At age 60 you will receive only about 70% of the amount you could get if you wait until your Full Retirement Age (FRA). This is age 66 for people born in 1945-1956. FRA increases for people born in 1962 or later. The highest FRA for collecting a spousal benefit is 67.

Survivor Benefit Basics

Choosing whether and when to take benefits after the death of your spouse depends on whether you or your spouse had started getting payments already. Here are the basics of how it works.

Couples Who Haven't Claimed Benefits Yet

If you haven't started getting benefits yet, waiting longer will help both of you get a higher benefit. This includes the survivor benefit once one of you passes away.

You can get the most out of the survivor benefit by having the spouse who earns more wait until age 70 to begin collecting. This creates a larger monthly payment. That larger payment will go to the surviving spouse when the first spouse passes away.

Couples Who Have Claimed Benefits

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

If your deceased spouse (or ex-spouse) had started getting payments, but you had not, you will have some choices to make about when you claim the survivor benefit. The age at which you begin benefits can provide more or less Social Security income over the course of your lifetime.

If you are unsure how to get the most out of your survivor payment, talk to a financial advisor. They will be able to suggest when and how to start claiming that income.

If you got married again after the death of your former spouse before you reach the age of 60 (or 50 if disabled), you can't get their survivor benefit.

How Much Can You Get?

First, Social Security pays a death benefit of $255 if the surviving spouse lived with the deceased spouse. This payment is made only once. More important is the monthly income.

At a basic level, the monthly amount depends on the earnings of the deceased spouse over their whole life. It also depends on the Social Security income they were getting or would have gotten.

The higher your spouse's earnings were over their life, the higher their Social Security income will be.

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

The amount you can get will vary from couple to couple. But knowing how these payments can look will help you estimate how much you may be able to claim.

Getting the Full Benefit

If neither of you had started claiming Social Security yet, you can wait until your survivor FRA (age 66 or 67) or older to apply. In this case, you will receive 100% of your late spouse’s basic benefit amount.

If they were able to get $1,650 a month at their FRA, you would get $1,650 a month by waiting until your full retirement age to start claiming. 

Survivor’s benefits include the effect of delayed retirement credits. If your spouse was already past age 66 or 67 and had not started taking Social Security, you may get a higher survivor benefit than if they had filed sooner.

When you start claiming your survivor benefit, you would get what their payment would have been at that later age. This will be a larger amount than if they had started sooner.

What Lowers the Benefits?

If you file between age 60 and your survivor FRA, you will receive between 71.5% and 99% of your late spouse’s basic payment amount. The amount goes up for each month that you are closer to your FRA.

If you collect a survivor benefit and you have not yet reached FRA, the amount you get can go down if you are working. This would happen if your income is higher than the earnings limit.

You Only Get One Payment

You can either get your Social Security income or your spouse’s, but not both. Once you and your spouse are both getting Social Security benefits, upon the death of your spouse, you will keep getting the larger benefit.

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

If you are caring for a child younger than age 16, you will receive 75% of the deceased worker’s benefit amount. This is true at any age.

Survivor Benefits for Ex-Spouses

If you were married to your ex for at least 10 years, and you do not get married again before age 60, then you can collect a benefit when your ex dies. You can collect this benefit even if they got married again before their death.

If you are caring for your ex-spouse's child, and the child is under 16, the 10-year rule does not apply. In general, the benefit is the same as it would be for a spouse who isn’t divorced.

When Should You Claim a Survivor's Benefit?

There are pros and cons to taking your survivor benefit before your FRA.

If you start at a lower age, you get this income for a longer time. The amount you get, though, may be lower than if you started later.

Many people can start to collect a survivor benefit before their reach FRA. It may make sense to start collecting now, then switch to your own retirement benefit at age 70 if it would be larger at that point.

For example, you could have these two options:

  1. At age 60, take a deceased spouse's benefit of $18,180 a year. Then at age 70, switch to your own benefit of $20,304.
  2. At age 62, take your own benefit of $10,752 a year. Then at 66, switch to your own 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 at least $30,000 more income over your life.

It will also provide a more secure income at age 66 and beyond once you take into account. If your goal is to reduce the risk of living longer than you have money for, you will want to use the option that gives you the most income over the rest of your life.

This might mean not starting benefits right away, even if you are able to get them. If you wait until age 66 or 67 and get more, you will have a higher total payout from Social Security over your lifetime.

What Do You Need To Claim a Social Security Survivor Benefit?

When you apply for Social Security survivor benefits you will need to take a number of documents with you.

  • Proof of death, either from a funeral home or death certificate
  • Your Social Security number, as well as that of your deceased spouse
  • Your birth certificate
  • Your marriage certificate, if you are a widow or widower
  • Any dependent children’s Social Security numbers and birth certificates
  • Your deceased spouse's W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year
  • The name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be paid into your account

The Bottom Line

In 2020, six million survivors received $7 billion in benefits just in the month of December. For 70% of single retirees, Social Security makes up at least half of their income. If you’ve lost a spouse, use a Social Security calculator that can account for survivor benefits. An informed choice can mean more financial security as you plan for the next phase of your life. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What percentage of Social Security does a spouse get from survivor benefits?

Once you have reached full retirement age, you can collect 100% of your late spouse's Social Security benefit as a surviving spouse. If you have to apply to start receiving benefits earlier than your full retirement age but after age 60, it will lower the percentage you can collect on.

How long do you get survivor benefits?

As long as you meet all the qualifications and are eligible to receive survivor benefits, you can collect your late spouse's benefits for life. Keep in mind that if you collect on your own Social Security, you will receive the higher amount between the two but not both.

Can common-law marriage spouses receive Social Security survivor benefits?

Yes, if you and your late spouse lived in a state or the marriage started in a state that recognizes common-law marriages, and you can provide the correct documentation, you are eligible for survivor benefits. Confirm that you live in a state that recognizes common-law marriages before filing a "Statement of Marital Relationship" and providing additional supporting documentation to start receiving survivor benefits.