Who Is Eligible for a Social Security Death Benefit?

Overview of Lump Sum and Monthly Social Security Death Benefits

Social Security card.
••• Tom Grill/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

When a person with Social Security benefits dies and leaves behind a surviving spouse or child, Social Security pays out two types of death benefits. The first provides a lump-sum death benefit of $255. The second payment provides an ongoing monthly death benefit called a survivor benefit.

The Lump-Sum Social Security Death Benefit

A spouse living in the same household can receive a one-time, lump-sum benefit of $255. If there is no spouse, a dependent child (usually age 18 or under) can receive a one-time lump-sum death benefit. There are exceptions to the age 18 rule on the minor child, so it's best to check Social Security's website to see if you fall in the exception category.

The lump-sum death benefit is payable as long as the deceased worker was considered to be currently insured. That means they had at least 6 quarters of their earnings covered by Social Security withholding during the full 13-quarter period prior to their death.

The following general guidelines dictate who should file an application in order to receive Social Security's lump-sum benefit:

  • If the Social Security death benefit is being paid to a widow or widower who is receiving a spousal benefit, then you don't need to file an application.
  • If the Social Security death benefit is being paid to an eligible dependent child, then an application must be filed within two years of the insured worker’s death.

The Social Security website provides a list of information that you will need to complete the death benefit application. Be sure to call the Social Security administration directly to report a death immediately and ask about any paperwork they may need.

Ongoing Monthly Social Security Death Benefit

An application for an ongoing monthly Social Security survivor benefit should be filed within six months of the worker’s death because no more than six months' worth of benefits will be paid retroactively. Begin by learning How to Apply for a Social Security Survivor Benefit.

Monthly survivor benefits are paid to widows and widowers, dependents, or minor children. The following guidelines apply:

Benefits for Dependents or Those Caring for a Minor Child

  • A child of the worker who is under age 18, or under age 19 and attending a full-time elementary or high school, or over 18 and disabled before the age of 22 may be eligible for ongoing monthly benefits.
  • A parent of the deceased worker aged 62 or older who was dependent upon the worker for support may be able to receive an ongoing payout.
  • A mother or father who cares for a dependent child of the deceased worker can also receive a benefit. The child must be under the age of 16 (or disabled before 22). This mother or father benefit is different than a widow or widower’s benefit in that it can be paid to someone of any age—as opposed to a surviving spouse who must be age 60 or older in order to claim a widow or widower’s benefit.

    Benefits for Spouses

    • A current spouse who has been married to the insured worker for at least nine months and who is age 60 or older can receive a lifetime monthly income as a Social Security survivor benefit
    • An ex-spouse of the worker (if they were married at least 10 years) who is age 60 or older, and who did not remarry before age 60 can also receive a lifetime monthly survivor benefit. Also, if you re-married but are now divorced again, you may still qualify.

    Also, benefits to spouses, dependents, and minors may be paid if the worker was fully insured.

    Fully insured means that someone had 40 quarters of work covered by Social Security tax withholding. Social Security bases ongoing survivor benefit amounts on three things:

    • The earnings record of the person who is deceased
    • Your current age
    • Your relationship to the deceased worker

    If you're a surviving spouse, you could expect to get between 70 percent and 100 percent of the amount the deceased worker would have gotten at the deceased worker's full retirement age.

    Why You May Not Qualify for Monthly Widow or Widower Benefits

    If you work, remarry before age 60, or are eligible for retirement benefits on your own record, this could reduce or eliminate your eligibility for an ongoing monthly Social Security survivor benefit as a widow or widower. If you're unsure, you can learn more on the Social Security website Survivors Planner page