Who Is Eligible for a Social Security Death Benefit?

Overview of Lump Sum and Monthly Social Security Death Benefits

Social Security card.
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The Social Security Administration (SSA) pays two types of payments to eligible surviving spouses and children. Other relatives of insured workers can also receive payments. The payments survivors might receive are an ongoing monthly survivor income and a lump-sum death benefit of $255.

The ongoing monthly survivor income pay is figured based on multiple factors. Learn these factors and how your survivor payments are affected and calculated.

Ongoing Monthly Survivor Benefit

Surviving spouses and dependents are eligible for monthly payments if you meet certain criteria. This includes former spouses who are divorced from a person at the time of their death. Who receives survivor income and how much varies in each instance.

For you to be eligible for the payment, your relative must have worked for a total of 10 years. They could also have worked a total of 1.5 years in the three years before their death.

If you have your own work record, you must choose between survivor income or yours. You cannot receive both at the same time.

You can receive either one beginning at age 60. You could then switch to the other higher income when you reach full retirement age.

Spouses

If you were married for at least nine months, you could begin receiving a lifetime monthly survivor payment at age 60. If you have a disabling condition and are age 50, you can receive the monthly payment. If you have a disabling condition, it must have occurred within seven years of your spouse's death. The age limit is waived if you're caring for a child of the deceased who is younger than 16. 

If you're a widow or widower and remarry before age 60—or age 50 if you have a disabling condition—you're not eligible for survivor income.

Ex-Spouses

If you were married to an ex-spouse for at least 10 years and you're age 60 or older, you can receive a lifetime monthly survivor payment. An ex-spouse who remarries after reaching age 60 still is eligible.

An ex-spouse who remarries and then gets divorced is still eligible. They have to be either unmarried or in a marriage that did not begin until after they turned 60.

If an ex-spouse cares for a departed's child and the child is younger than 16, the 10-year minimum is waived. For the most part, the payment is figured just as it is for a spouse who isn’t divorced.

Children

If your spouse had children, they could receive monthly payments if they are younger than 18. Their children can still receive monthly payments if they are younger than 19 and still attending school (non-college level) on a full-time basis. Children who became disabled before age 22 and remain so can receive monthly payments with no age limit.

The children must also be unmarried to receive survivor payments.

Other Beneficiaries

Adopted children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and step-grandchildren may be eligible. Parents of insured workers may be eligible if they are 62 or older. The parents must have been dependent upon their child for support. Additionally, they cannot have their own monthly payment that is equal to or greater than their child's.

These other beneficiaries could receive monthly income if the deceased served as their legal guardian. Each case is determined in the same manner as the children of the deceased worker.

Benefit Amounts

The SSA bases survivor payment amounts on the earnings of your spouse or relative. The more they earned over their lifetime, the greater your amount will be. You can view you or your spouse's earnings history and projected amount by creating a My Social Security account online.

The age at which you begin drawing income impacts the amount of the monthly payment. If you start taking your payments before your full retirement age, the amount is reduced.

If you were born after January 2, 1960, your full retirement age is 67. If you were born between 1954 and 1960, your full retirement age ranges between 66 and 67 in two-month increments.

Most commonly, you should expect to receive a percentage of your spouse's or relative's amount:

  • A widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse can receive 100% at full retirement age or older. It's possible to obtain 71.5% at age 60, to as much as 99% before full retirement age. This depends on the beneficiary's age when payments began.
  • A disabled widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse ages 50–59 can receive 71.5%.
  • A widow or widower, any age, caring for a child younger than 16 can receive 75%.
  • A child younger than 18 (19 if they're still in elementary or secondary school) or disabled can receive 75%.
  • A dependent parent(s) of the deceased worker, age 62 or older, can receive 82.5% for one surviving parent, or 75% apiece to each of two surviving parents.

Multiple family members can qualify for a monthly survivor payment. However, the total amount paid to all family members is capped between 150% and 180% of your spouse's amount. The SSA bases payment amounts on a formula. If the total amount of the payments is higher than the maximum allowed, each member's payment is reduced.

Lump-Sum Death Benefit

In addition to a monthly survivor income, if you lived in the same household as your spouse, you'll receive a one-time, lump-sum payment of $255. If you were married but living apart, you may also be able to receive payments if you received them on your spouse's record before they died. You'll receive the lump-sum payment if you're qualified to receive monthly income upon your spouse's death.

The lump-sum death payment will be paid as long as the SSA currently insured your spouse. This means their earnings were subject to SSA withholding during six quarters of the full 13-quarter period—three years and three months—before their death.

If a person dies without a spouse, a dependent child (usually age 18 or younger) can receive a one-time lump-sum death payment.

A widow or widower already receiving a spousal payment does not need to apply to receive the lump-sum payment. If the Social Security death payment is being paid to an eligible dependent child, an application must be filed within two years of the insured worker’s death.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you apply for the Social Security death benefit?

You can apply for the Social Security death benefit by calling 1-800-772-1213 (1-800-325-0778 for TTY) or by vising a Social Security office. You'll need to provide documentation, including a birth certificate, proof of citizenship if you were born outside the U.S., military discharge papers if you served before 1968, last year's W-2s, and a death certificate for the deceased person.

How is Social Security taxed?

Social Security benefits can be taxed. If you file as an individual and your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, you may be taxed on up to 50% of your benefits. If it's more than $34,000, you may be taxed on up to 85% of your benefits. For married couples filing jointly, if your income is between $32,000 and $44,000, you may have to pay taxes on up to 50% of your benefits. If your income is over $44,000, you may be taxed on up to 85% of your benefits.