How Social Security Survivor Benefits Work

Social Security Survivor Benefits are much different from Spousal Benefits in several ways.  In fact, there’s very little to compare between the two.  Here are the primary things that you need to know about Survivor Benefits:

  • Survivor Benefits can be claimed as early as age 60.  Of course, as with all early claims for benefits, the amount will be reduced if you claim earlier than Full Retirement Age (FRA). At age 60 your Survivor Benefit would be reduced to 71.5% of your late spouse’s benefit amount (or PIA if he or she wasn’t at FRA).
  • Survivor Benefits are based upon 100% of the amount of benefit (at your FRA) that the deceased spouse was or should be receiving, whereas Spousal Benefits are based upon the PIA, and then only at a 50% maximum rate.
  • Survivor Benefits can also be applied for separately from your own retirement benefit – meaning that you can receive Survivor Benefits while delaying receipt of your own retirement benefit (if it’s higher) in order to receive Delayed Retirement Credits up to age 70.
  • Survivor Benefits are only payable if the surviving spouse has not remarried before age 60.  After age 60, the surviving spouse can remarry and still receive Survivor Benefits based upon the deceased spouse’s record.
  • A disabled surviving spouse can collect benefits as early as age 50 – at the same rate as if waiting to age 60 – 71.5% of the deceased spouse’s benefit.
  • If a surviving spouse is caring for a child under the age of 16, Survivor Benefits can be claimed until the child or children are over age 16.  This benefit is equal to 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit (or PIA if the deceased spouse was not receiving benefits).
  • Survivor Benefits can also be paid to children of the decedent, provided they are under age 19 and a full time student.  If the child is disabled (prior to age 22), Survivor Benefits can still be paid to the child after age 19.  The child’s Survivor Benefit is at a 75% rate of the decedent’s benefit.

These Survivor Benefit rules also apply to ex-spouses who become widows or widowers, as long as the ex-spouse was married to the ex-spouse for at least ten years.

About the author

Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA

Jim Blankenship is the founder and principal of Blankenship Financial Planning, Ltd., a financial planning firm providing hourly, as-needed financial planning and advice. A financial services professional for over 25 years, Jim is a CFP professional and has earned the Enrolled Agent designation, a designation that qualifies him as enrolled to practice before the IRS. Jim is also a NAPFA-registered financial advisor, which designates him as a Fee-Only Financial Advisor.

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  • Hi. My husband passed away almost a year ago and my son and I both receive benefits. I was told every year they would check to make sure his benefits are going towards my child. Which both of our benefits go to us living. Like paying rent, bills food, etc. But I also use some money for some things that I need. I’m really worried they’re gonna take our benefits away cause we completely live off of this Cause I’m not in a good position to work. My son is only three and isn’t really ready for daycare so I can work. I just want to know if I’m not using my benefits right? If they take it away I don’t know what we’ll do. We’ll lose everything.

    • As long as it’s going toward your living expenses, you should be in good shape. Your son needs you, so of course you will benefit from some of this money as well.

      The main thing is that you shouldn’t use these funds for things like gambling (including lottery), alcohol, or other vices. Normal living expenses (food, rent, clothing, medical) are appropriate.

  • hello
    my kids father has just passed away and i have filed for survival benefits. i opted out of my portion so my children get more toward them. I was wondering what exactly can that be used on? can i save some for college? It says use for living expenses so do I just take a portion of it for that or what? I am 29 and he was 31 so I have never been in a situation like this or really ever heard of any of this. can you please help?

  • My husband died over a year ago. Me and my two children receive monthly benefits. Just found out my late husband has a 3 year old daughter and she had his mother do a legal paternity test which came back positive. She is now applying for benefits. Will she be approved and will that lessen the amount we receive?

    • Yes, there is a family maximum amount of benefits that can be received based on one worker’s record. With three already claiming on the record, adding one more will likely reduce the amount you are currently receiving. SSA staff can explain it to you with the specifics if you have questions.

  • My husband was diagnosed with brain cancer last April. When we applied for disability benefits, he was told he wasn’t elegible for benefits because he didn’t have enough credits.
    He has since passed. We have two daughters. Our 15 year old is his stepdaughter, he raised her since she was 6. We also have a 6 year old who is his biological daughter.
    Are any of them elegible for child survivor benefits??
    Thank you!!

  • i am 52 years old and on SSI , my father recently died in prison, before prison he worked , is it possible for me to claim his benefits?

  • I’m just wondering if I will lose all survivor benefits when my kids turn 16? My husband passed away June 2015. I am 35. I didn’t work my late Husband supported me and 5 kids. Just trying to figure ss benefits out.

  • I am currently getting survivor benefits from my moms passing. I was disabled at birth. I am 27 and still getting benefits. I now recently got married, will I still get benefits?

  • Im currently getting survivors benefits but my grandparents seem a suspicious when i ask then about the checks. As if they dont want to give them to me. Ive never seen the money personally. Its a bout time i do. They claimed that im the ONLY person that can cash it but i dont buy it. Can anyone help me out ?

  • My daughter currently receives survivor benefits. She is 7 yes old and her father passed away a year ago. Her paternal grandfather called me asking for her social security number and address stating that he received a letter from SSA and he needs her information. My daughter’s father was in the middle of applying for Disability when he passed. Could he have went ahead with the process and received those payments he would have gotten if he were alive? I don’t understand why he needs her social security #. He is lumen of bland on the reason. Just saying that he needs it to check and see if there is any other money owed from SSA.

    • If you are the child’s guardian you should be involved in any contact with SSA regarding benefits that she might be eligible to receive. As the grandfather to include you in the conversation with SSA – either on the phone or go along on an office visit if necessary.

      • Thank you for your Reply. Your time is much appreciated. I will look into attending with him and looking more into the matter. Thanks!

  • I have been legally married to my sons father since 2008.. We were separated for a lot the past 9 years but never got divorced. He lived with me off and on over the years and in 2014 I had my daughter and my husband and I were not together so my boyfriend at the time signed my daughters birth certificate. I recently had a new baby in November 2016 in the state of TN and my husband passed away in July 2016. Because I was still legally married when I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, her biological father was not able to be put on the birth certificate because they said the law was if you the mom is married while pregnant the husband of the mother is considered to be the legal father of the child.. So my question is. Can I get survivors benefits for my middle daughter even though the hospital made the mistake of allowing someone other than my husband to sign the birth certificate? Would I need to have her birth certificate changed in order to qualify for survivors benefits for her as well?

  • I’m 18. I have survivor’s benefits, but I’m in school until February 9th, and I get my benefits February 8th. I’m dropping out because I was kicked out of my home and I’m relocating to a different state a couple days following the payment. Would I have to pay back my benefits even though my benefits will be terminated after I drop out?

  • My 18 year old son was recently killed in a horrible one car accident. His son was 9 months old when he passed. There has never been a question about paternity. He is listed on the birth certificate and has been providing for his son while graduating and working full time. His son’s mother is only 17 and her and the baby live with her family. My son has worked a series of jobs since he was 15. Some took taxes and some positions were 1099. After his passing, I called soc. sec. and they said he didn’t have enough credits for the baby to receive ANY financial benefits. They told me over the phone. My question is this? What about the taxes they have taken from him? Is there any loophole that I’m missing that could help. It really seems unfair to the baby that his dad did work and provide but now he can’t. I thought that was what the benefits are for. I can’t think of a more deserving situation.

    • Unfortunately there is a minimum number of quarter-credits that must have been earned in order for an individual to be considered “covered”, to provide survivor benefits based on his record. It sounds as if your son did not have the required credits on his record.

      You might check back with SSA to ensure that they have counted all of his earnings (up to his death) in the calculation.

  • I’m 25 single never been married n no kids an just enrolled in college. my father passed in nov 2015. An he had no spouse he was widowed. would i be able get any kind of benefits?

  • My wife was eligible for survival benefits however was not aware of it now they don’t wanna pay her and cut her off totally yet say she’s still disabled can u help?

  • My spouse and I have guardianship of a a 8 yr. old. He was disabled and drawing ssd My ? is: Will we get survivor benefits

  • my 9 y/o kid’s dad passed away recently. I don’t have his name on his birth certificate so SSA told me to contact the coroners office for dna testing which i did and it matched. I was told that my kid will be getting 1k a month in survivors benefits. I was so happy because finally i can quit one of my jobs to spend time with him because he has special needs. I work 3 jobs and I only see my kids 30 mins in the morning and 30 mins a night 6x times a week. We have two kids together the eldest is 19 who is very responsible. He’s in college now. So after two hours this guy from SSA called me and told me that they cannot approve it because they need evidence like he is claiming our son as his like school, medical, religious records, IRS form a letter from him or child order child support. I don’t have any of that because we separated when my son was one and during that year he was in and out of jail for abusing me. I have several police reports and no contact orders.I didn’t file for child support either because I was afraid of him that if I did he’s gonna kill me because one time i opened up about putting his name on our kids birth certificate he started screaming at me, calling me names shoving me. After i separted from him for good, i slept with a knife for first 5 months. I told SSA i only pictures of him and my kids and letter from him saying he’s sorry and he loves his sons and his parents and relatives is willing to write letters saying the my son is his but they said its not good enough. but on their handbook section 1712 says letter from relatives can be a supporting evidence. They told me they want proof that he’s supporting our kid financially. I cannot prove that because I’m the sole provider that doesn’t mean we don’t need the extra help. He had a good job before he became alcoholic and he started stealing from me and pawning our son’s gadget for alcohol. My eldest son started seeing counseling because of him..Is there hope for my 9 year old to get survivor’s benefits??

  • Jim – how about this one?

    Husband passes away at age 58. Wife is 60. Can she start receiving survivor benefits or does she have to wait until he would have been 62?

    If she can claim benefits now, I assume that benefit would be based on her husband’s PIA as if he claimed at full retirement age?


    • I believe the wife is eligible as of age 60, regardless of the husband’s age. The benefits would be based on the husband’s PIA at FRA since he hasn’t claimed early, but then reduced to the minimum since she is age 60.

      Confirm that with SSA before you bank on it, though…

  • I am 32 years of age. My father recently passed away and a survivor benefits letter came for him in the mail. Stating i could be eligible for his benefits. But from all of the information I gathered I am to old. Do they day ssi to the children if they’re of my age

  • I’m currently receiving survivors benefits for the my parents death when I was 1. I’m now 25 and have a disability of my own. I am pregnant and expecting in 4 months. Will my child be eligible to any kind of benefits due to me being on survivors benefits and not able to work? If my child is eligible then ehat kind of benefits would they receive and how and when can I apply for them.

    • Age 25 is not a triggering event for Social Security benefits. Social Security benefits should not be affected at all. If you are receiving other benefits from other programs, those might be affected but I can’t say for sure.

  • My husband passed away in May, our 15 yr old daughter has received 2 payments but now they say I make more than $12,000 so the rest of the year, they have suspened the rest of the years payments for “overpayment”. I have made $15, 158 to date. My question is, “does the income limit apply to survivor(minor)?

    • If the payments you are receiving are specifically in your daughter’s name, your earnings should not impact her benefit. If the payments are in your name (that is, if you’re receiving benefits as the parent of a child under age 16), then your earnings will have an impact on the benefits received.

      If the former (benefits in the name of your daughter) then only her earnings should impact her benefits.

  • Hi Jim,
    My son has been receiving death benefits since his father/my husband passed at age 35 – and has been paid to me as his guardian. My son was 17 months old when his father died and is now 11. I am still single. I just received a letter from Social Security telling me they cannot pay the benefits since my reported income from 2015 and expected 2016 income has surpassed some invisible threshold. Can you help me understand what that threshold is and what I should expect?
    Thank you,

  • Hi Jim,

    I am a 33 year old widow. I have 2 children (7 and 5) who receive their father’s SS benefit. I am an educator and make approximately $50K. However, I am considering a career change and possibly won’t be working. Would I then be eligible for Survivor benefits, since my income would be $0, or would I not be eligible until a year after I stop working (do they go on the previous year’s earnings?)

      • It’s likely that the earnings test will be on a monthly basis since you are starting in the middle of the year (if that is the case). Regardless, the earnings test is based on your current income, when you’re receiving the SS benefit, and not on your prior year’s earnings.

        Talk to SSA about it – they should be able to point you in the right direction.

        Keep in mind that there is a limit to the amount of benefits that can be received based on one person’s record, as well. With two children already receiving benefits, the limit may be already met.

  • I have two daughters who are receiving survival benefit from their dad, one of my daughters just turned eighteen a couple of days ago. Will my younger daughter receive my older daughter portion of the money?

  • I am getting survivors benefits. Both my parents were disabled and now deceased. I am legally disabled. If I work while getting survivors benefits how will this effect my social scurity? Is this SSA,SSI, SSDI,SDI?

  • My daughter will be 16 this month and therefore my survivor benefits stopped. How can I keep track online of her benefits like did mine

  • Sorry Reposting as I need to edit my comment:

    Hi Jim,
    My Aunt’s husband just passed! She is on SSD She was married for 12 yrs. He was also on SSD! However he worked all his life before becoming disabled! She is 60 yrs. old, but she receives 1290$ per month per month on her check each no other income! Is she entitle to receive benefits also from her husbands? (Survivors) On the SSA Website when it talks about the Survivor Benefits it says nothing about any of this!
    Thank you very much in advance!

  • Hi Jim,
    My Aunt’s husband just passed! She is on SSD She was married for 2 yrs. He was also on SSD! However he worked all his life before becoming disabled! She is 60 yrs. old, but she receives 1290$ per month per month on her check each no other income! Is she entitle to receive benefits also from her husbands? (Survivors) On the SSA Website when it talks about the Survivor Benefits it says nothing about any of this!
    Thank you very much in advance!

  • My husband passed away when he was 47 & I was 39. We had been married for 18 years and had a child together who was 7 when my husband passed. I drew the survivor benefits until my son was 16. Can I still get spousal benefits when I draw my social security at my full retirement age of 66 years and 7 months?

  • What the hell kind of common sense does it take to stop an ex spouses benefits when the child turns 16? Like the child is expected to go to school full time and work full time now? What if the child’s SS is being saved for college? What if the child has major social phobias and can’t work but isn’t “disabled”? I have to live with my parents because of this rule. Thanks.

    • The key word is the “parent’s benefits” stop, the benefits are paid to the child because they are for the child, not the parent. It is expected that the parent can work and take care of thierself by this time and a 16 year old does not require a babysitter at this age so it comes in his/her name not the parents. The teenager is entitled to benefits until 18 years of age as long as he/she attends school or 19 if still in highschool. If for some reason they are not getting it you need to call social security or go to the office. Remember to ask the right question: Why is your “child” not getting it, not why YOU are not getting it.

      • I recently just started getting survival benefits for my children and they said that even though it is going into my bank account the checks are in their name not mine of course I could have gotten benefits as well but opted out and it goes all to my children

  • My Ex passed away a couple of weeks ago. He was 68 and i am 56…i know i wouldn’t be able to start collecting his benefits til i turn 60 but i was told if i am making more than $14500.00 per yr i can not get his benefits…i actually make over $55k per year. Is this true?

  • Sydney –

    Unfortunately, there is no way for you to have access to the funds yourself, as you are a minor. The only way this could be done is if someone else were to be given guardianship over you, and then the money would be in the control of the new guardian.

    I don’t know the law in Oklahoma, so there may be other alternatives that you could look into – you’ll need to consult an attorney on that.

    Sorry I couldn’t help.


  • Jim , I am 16 years old & i live with my mother in Oklahoma . We do not have the best relationship and my father passed away july 16 th of 2011 . Thats when i moved back in with her .She has filed for my social security benefits and is threatening that it will be spent on her own personal needs. Is there anything i can do ?

    • She has to prove she is using the benefits for the “child’s” care. In addition, if she has not provided 50% of her support, through the mother’s own income (meaning the mom has a job), she cannot claim her on her taxes (tax fraud). If she did not use it for the child she can report her for social security fraud! SSI is not to support the mom, but the child! Don’t worry, in two years you won’t get anything so she won’t get anything.

  • hi
    my childrens father passed away a few yrs. ago. weve been collecting servivors benefits, but now my youngest is turning 16 and i will no longer recieve my checks for taking care of them. why is it i get cut off when they are still in the home, going to school, and i still have to support them? IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO?

  • Hello, Kelly –

    The income limit for Survivors benefits is the same as for Retirement Benefits before Full Retirement Age (FRA): $14,160 for 2011. $1 is withheld for every $2 in earnings above that limit.

    And you will be eligible for survivor benefits as early as age 60 (still subject to the earnings limits), with no earnings limit when you are at or above FRA.

    Hope this helps –


  • What is the income limit for surviving spouses with a dependent child under 18? My child is 6 and receives benefits but I was told that I made to much yearly to receive benefits. Also do I receive benefits from my deceased husband at retirement age?

  • Karen –

    The income test is always for the current year, so if your sis is earning less than the test amount she should be eligible for a reduced benefit based upon her late husband’s record. The benefit will be reduced because she is taking the benefit prior to her own Full Retirement Age.

    Hope this helps –


  • I’m attempting to assist my sister who’s husband drew disability pension until his death in 2008. My sister was born in 1951 and will be 60 this September 2011. She currently works two jobs. Her total YTD income as of June 30th is $12186.00, but of course has monthly bills around $1520 per month.

    If she continues to work her full time job, I don’t think she would be able to draw anything in 2011 on this pension. She is wanting to begin working to reduce her income to $1180 per month limit, but I’m not sure for this year that would assist her at all.

    If she waits to begin drawing the pension January 2012 and prior to January 1, 2012 knows that her income will be less than the $1180, would she eligible to draw the percentage of her husband’s pension or would 2012 be based on her 2011 income?

    Thank you for your assistance.

  • Once I am 60, I can draw survivor benefit from my husband’s social security, but is there a limit of income I can make before I am penalized?

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