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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  • 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.

  • 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 ?

  • 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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