Who is Eligible for a Social Security Death Benefit?

An overview of the lump sum and monthly Social Security death benefits.

Social Security card.
Social Security death benefits can be a lifesaver. Tom Grill/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Social Security pays out two types of death benefits. The first is a lump sum death benefit of $255. The second is an ongoing monthly death benefit called a survivor benefit. Both are covered below.

1. Lump Sum Social Security Death Benefit

A spouse (who is living in the same household) can receive a one-time lump sum benefit of $255. If there is no spouse, a dependent child generally age 18 or under (see exceptions to the age 18 rule on the minor child section of Social Security's website), is then eligible for a one-time lump sum death benefit.

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

Below are general guidelines on who should file an application for this lump-sum benefit:

  • If the Social Security death benefit is being paid to a widow or widower who is receiving a spousal benefit, then no application need be filed.
  • 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.

It is always best to call Social Security to report a death immediately and to find out what paperwork they may need. The Social Security website provides a list of information that you will need to complete the death benefit application. You'll want to read through this list and gather the needed info before you apply.

2. Ongoing Monthly Social Security Death Benefit

Monthly survivor benefits are paid to widow/widowers, dependents, or minor children as follows:

Benefits for Dependents or Those Caring for a Minor Child

  • A child of the worker who is under age 18, 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 an ongoing monthly survivor benefit.
  • A parent of the deceased worker who is age 62 or older and was dependent upon the worker for support may be able to receive an ongoing amount.
  • The 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’s benefit is different than a widow or widower’s benefit in that it can be paid to someone of any age, whereas a surviving spouse must be age 60 or older to claim a widow or widower’s benefit.

Benefits for a Spouse

  • A current spouse who has been married to the insured worker for at least 9 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 ten years) who is age 60 or older, and who did not remarry before age 60 can also receive a lifetime monthly survivor benefit. (If you re-married but are now divorced again you may still qualify.)

Benefits to above persons may be paid if the worker was fully insured or currently insured. Currently insured is described earlier in this article. Fully insured is described below.

Fully insured means someone had 40 quarters of work covered by Social Security tax withholding.

Ongoing survivor benefit amounts are based on:

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

As a rough estimate, as a surviving spouse you could expect to get between 70% and 100% of the amount the deceased worker would have gotten at the deceased worker's full retirement age.

Promptly File an Application for Death Benefits

An application for an ongoing monthly Social Security survivor benefit should be filed within six months of the worker’s death as no more than six months worth of benefits will be paid retroactively.

Reasons You May Not Qualify for Monthly Widow/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.

Learn more on the Social Security website Survivors Planner page