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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Social Security pays two types of benefits to eligible surviving spouses, children, and other relatives of insured workers: an ongoing monthly survivor benefit and a lump-sum death benefit of $255.

Eligibility differs for each type of benefit, and how much the ongoing monthly survivor benefit pays is determined by multiple factors.

Ongoing Monthly Survivor Benefit

Surviving spouses and dependents of insured workers are eligible for monthly payments if they meet certain criteria. This includes former spouses who are divorced from the insured worker at the time of death. Eligibility varies in each instance.

For survivors to be eligible for benefits, insured workers must have worked for a total of 10 years or for a total of 1.5 years in the three years before their death.

Survivors with their own work records must choose between survivor benefits or their own benefits. They cannot receive both at the same time. However, they can receive either benefit beginning when they are eligible for early retirement at age 60, then switch to the other higher-paying benefit when they reach full retirement age.

Spouses

Current spouses who have been married to an insured worker for at least nine months can begin receiving a lifetime monthly survivor benefit at age 60 or at age 50 if they are disabled and became disabled within seven years of their spouse's death. The age limit is waived if the surviving spouse is caring for a child of the deceased's who is younger than 16. 

Widows or widowers who remarry before age 60—or age 50 if disabled—are not eligible for survivor benefits.

Ex-Spouses

An ex-spouse married to an insured worker for at least 10 years who is unmarried and age 60 or older also can receive a lifetime monthly survivor benefit. An ex-spouse who remarries after reaching age 60 still is eligible.

An ex-spouse who remarries then gets divorced still is eligible if she meets the standard of being unmarried or is in a marriage that did not begin until after age 60.

If an ex-spouse is caring for the deceased's child and the child is younger than 16, the 10-year minimum is waived. Generally, the benefit is calculated just as it is for a spouse who isn’t divorced.

Children

Children of insured workers are eligible to receive benefits if they are younger than 18 or younger than 19 if still attending elementary or high school on a full-time basis. Children who became disabled before age 22 and remain disabled also are eligible for benefits with no age limit.

Children of insured workers also must be unmarried in order to receive benefits.

Other Beneficiaries

Besides children and surviving spouses, adopted children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and step-grandchildren may be eligible, as may parents of insured workers if they are 62 or older, dependent upon the worker for support, and not entitled to a benefit of their own equal to or greater than the deceased worker's.

Adopted children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and step-grandchildren also are eligible for benefits if the deceased served as their legal guardian. In such cases, eligibility is determined in the same manner as children of the deceased worker.

Benefit Amounts

Social Security bases ongoing survivor benefit amounts on the earnings of the insured worker. The more an individual earns over a lifetime, the greater that person's benefit amount will be. Anyone can view their earnings history and projected benefit amount by creating a My Social Security account online.

The age at which an individual begins receiving benefits impacts the amount of the benefit. Taking benefits before full retirement age results in a reduced benefit amount. For anyone born since Jan. 2, 1960, full retirement age will be 67. For those born between 1954 and 1960, full retirement age ranges between 66 and 67 in two-month increments depending on the year the individual was born.

The most common beneficiaries should expect to receive the following percentages of the deceased worker's benefit amount:

  • Widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse: 100% at full retirement age or older or from 71.5% at age 60 to as much as 99% before full retirement age, depending on the age of the beneficiary when benefits begin.
  • Disabled widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse, ages 50–59: 71.5%.
  • Widow or widower, any age, caring for a child younger than 16: 75%.
  • A child younger than 18 (19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or disabled: 75%.
  • Dependent parent(s) of the deceased worker, age 62 or older: 82.5% for one surviving parent or 75% apiece to each of two surviving parents.

When multiple family members qualify for a monthly survivor benefit, the total amount paid to all family members is capped between 150% and 180% of the deceased worker's benefit amount, based on a Social Security Administration formula. If the maximum would otherwise be exceeded, benefits for each family member are reduced proportionately.

Lump-Sum Death Benefit

In addition to a monthly survivor benefit, a spouse living in the same household can receive a one-time, lump-sum benefit of $255. Spouses who were living apart also may be eligible if they received benefits on the worker's record in the month preceding the death or if they were qualified to receive benefits upon the worker's death.

The lump-sum death benefit is payable as long as the deceased worker was considered to be currently insured. That means their earnings were subject to Social Security withholding during six quarters of the full 13-quarter period—three years and three months—prior to their death.

If there is no spouse, a dependent child (usually age 18 or younger) can receive a one-time lump-sum death benefit.

A widow or widower already receiving a spousal benefit does not need to file an application to receive the lump-sum benefit. 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.

Article Sources

  1. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Survivors | If You Are The Survivor." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  2. Social Security Administration. "Social Security Credits." Accessed Jan. 22, 2020.

  3. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Survivors | If You Are The Survivor." Accessed Jan. 22, 2020.

  4. Social Security Administration. "Code of Federal Regulations: § 404.335. How Do I Become Entitled to Widow's or Widower's Benefits?" Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  5. Social Security Administration. "Code of Federal Regulations: § 404.331. Who is entitled to wife's or husband's benefits as a divorced spouse?" Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  6. Social Security Administration. "Survivors Benefits." Page 2. Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  7. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Survivors | How To Apply." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  8. Social Security Administration Code of Federal Regulations. "Your Relationship to the Insured: § 404.354. Your relationship to the insured." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.

  9. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Retirement." Accessed Jan. 23, 2020.