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What Are Social Security Survival Benefits?

When a loved one passes away, family members can feel the weight not only of their grief but also the financial strain that can accompany losing a major source of income.

Personal loans, insurance payouts, and generosity from others may help offset this challenge.

But for those who paid into Social Security during their time as workers, there’s another option: Social Security survivors benefits.

These payments can help cover funeral costs, food, rent, home care services, and more for those you care about most.

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security survivor benefits can financially support your loved ones after you or a family member passes away. They may help offset funeral expenses, childcare, and the necessities of life.
  • Survivors benefits work similarly to a life insurance policy, but to be eligible, you’ll have to have worked and paid into Social Security enough before your time of death.
  • To apply, visit your local Social Security office or utilize the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) toll-free number. You can’t apply for these benefits online, but you can find information and documentation online.

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Understanding Social Security Survival Benefits

If you or a family member passes away, your loved ones may be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits, sometimes referred to as “death benefits.”

These are payments provided to relatives and dependents of eligible workers. 

Unlike other Social Security benefits for older adults, survivors benefits can be paid to recipients of almost any age.

A survivor — whether they’re a spouse, child, or the parent of a worker who dies — can use these benefits as long as the deceased had worked and paid into Social Security long enough before their passing.

Workers can earn up to four Social Security credits each year. Each credit translates to a certain amount of income.

In 2023, for example, you could earn one credit for each $1,640 of wages. That means you would hit your yearly four-credit limit once you’ve earned $6,560.

The number of credits needed to provide benefits to your survivors depends on the age at which you or your loved one passes.

No one needs more than 40 credits or ten years of work to be eligible for benefits, but the younger the person is, the fewer credits they will have for family members to count on.

Surviving Spouses

As of 2023, around 4 million surviving spouses receive monthly benefit payments based on their deceased spouse’s earnings record. In many cases, these benefits help provide the necessities of life, including food, housing, and essential care.

That’s not the only thing surviving spouses can expect to gain from Social Security death benefits, though. Other perks they can receive include:

  • A chance to qualify for retirement benefits earlier than others, sometimes as early as age 62.
  • Social Security benefit payments as early as age 50 — if they have a disability AND their disability started before or within seven years of the deceased’s date of death.
  • Social Security benefits at any age, so long as they take care of your child who is under age 16 or has a disability and receives child’s benefits.

These benefits can apply to divorced spouses as long as their marriage lasted ten years or more. Likewise, surviving spouses looking to receive benefits can only remarry once they reach age 60.

Surviving Child or Children

If you have unmarried children under 18, they may be eligible for benefits if you pass away. Your child can also get benefits at any age if they have a disability that began before age 22. Stepchildren, grandchildren, or adopted children may also be eligible to receive benefits under certain circumstances.

Surviving Parent(s)

Some parents are dependent on their children. These parents can receive death benefits if their child passes away, specifically if the deceased provides at least half of the parent’s financial support. Dependent parents can receive benefits if:

  • They are not eligible to receive a retirement benefit higher than the benefit you provide.
  • They do not marry after the deceased’s death. Some exceptions apply to this rule, but remarriage generally impacts eligibility.
  • They are stepparents or adoptive parents who became your parent before you were age 16.

Who Doesn’t Qualify for Survival Benefits?

Most dependent immediate family members can qualify for survivor benefits, but some exceptions are worth noting. Knowing who can and can’t receive payments can help your family create a plan that works for your needs. Some examples of individuals who generally don’t qualify for death benefits include:

  • Divorced spouses (in some cases)
  • Children over the age limit
  • Extended family members
  • Individuals without legal status
  • Those not dependent on the deceased: i.e., unmarried, non-dependent children, non-dependent parents, etc.

How to Apply for Survival Benefits

To apply for Social Security survivors benefits, you’ll need to:

  1. Gather the appropriate documents,
  2. Visit your local Social Security office or mail in your documents (you cannot report a death or apply for survivor benefits online) and
  3. Submit your official application. From there, you’ll have to wait until your application is reviewed, approved, or denied.

If you’re looking to apply for benefits because a loved one has recently passed away, your first step should be to notify the Social Security Administration about the death. You must contact your local office or call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) to report the death. 

In many cases, funeral homes report a person’s passing to the SSA. If you’d like a funeral home to take care of this step, make sure you provide the deceased person’s Social Security number when making arrangements.

Once you’ve reported the death, you can determine whether you need to officially apply for survivors benefits.

  • If you’re already receiving Social Security benefits from a parent or spouse’s work earnings, you probably do not need to file a new application for death benefits. SSA should automatically change your monthly benefits to include these payments once they receive a death report. You may also be eligible for a special lump-sum death payment automatically.
  • If you are not already receiving benefits, or if you receive retirement or disability benefits on your own accord, you will need to apply promptly.

Documents Required for Survival Benefits

If you need to apply for survivors benefits, the first thing to check off your list is collecting the right documents. Come prepared to your local office or mail in all your documents at once to simplify the process as much as possible.

For Spouses

An eligible surviving spouse looking to apply for survivors benefits must present the following documents:

  • Proof of the worker’s death
  • A birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship (or lawful alien status for those not born in the U.S.)
  • W-2 form(s) or self-employment tax returns for the year
  • A marriage certificate
  • If applicable: final divorce decree, disability benefit forms SSA-2268 and SSA-827, and U.S. military discharge paper(s) for those who served before 1968

For Children

Those applying for children’s survivor benefits must be able to provide the following documentation:

  • The child’s birth certificate or proof of birth/adoption
  • Proof of the worker’s marriage to the child’s natural or adoptive parent
  • Proof of the child’s U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status
  • W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns if the child had earnings last year
  • Proof of the worker’s death and any U.S. military discharge papers

For Parents

If you are dependent on a child and they pass away, you can receive parent death benefits by submitting these documents:

  • A birth certificate or proof of birth
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status
  • U.S. military discharge paper(s) if you had military service before 1968
  • W-2 forms(s) or self-employment tax returns for last year
  • A death certificate for the deceased child

For Lump-Sum Death Payments

A lump-sum payment is a one-time payment (usually $255) designed to help cover the costs associated with a person’s death. To receive one, you must provide:

  • A birth certificate or other proof of birth
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or legal alien status
  • U.S. military discharge papers for those who served before 1968
  • W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns for last year
  • A death certificate

Helpful Resources

Want to learn more about Social Security survivors benefits and how you can ensure your family can utilize them? Check out these helpful resources for contact information and other details you may need to get the ball rolling.

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