Perched high on the list of questions most frequently asked of the AMAC Foundation’s Social Security Advisor Service is the topic of “survivor benefits.”  The term “survivor benefit” refers to benefits available to the dependent(s) of a deceased person who was either eligible for, or already collecting, Social Security (SS) benefits when death occurred. Dependents eligible for survivor benefits are usually[1] either or both the spouse or minor child of the deceased. Eligibility rules, however, are somewhat different for each.

Surviving Spouse Benefits

Let’s first clarify that the benefit amount a surviving spouse will receive is based upon 100% of the benefit the deceased was actually receiving, or eligible to receive, at death. If someone dies before they have started receiving their SS benefit, the surviving spouse’s benefit will be based upon the SS amount the deceased had earned up to the month they died. The full benefit amount is usually only available if the surviving spouse claims it at their full retirement age (FRA).[2]

A surviving spouse (and ex-spouse if eligible) must be at least 60[3] years old to collect a survivor benefit from the deceased. Survivor benefits, however, are reduced if taken before the survivor’s full retirement age (FRA). If claimed at the earliest possible age (e.g., 60), the survivor benefit will be reduced by 28.5%. If claimed at their FRA, the survivor will get 100% of the amount the deceased was receiving (or eligible to receive) at death. Taken at any age in between, the benefit will be reduced by .396% for each month before the survivor’s FRA (4.75% for each full year earlier). It is usually not required to take the surviving spouse benefit immediately, and many survivors wait until their FRA to avoid a reduced survivor benefit[4].  

The are several special rules which apply to surviving spouse benefits:

  • If the deceased claimed SS before their FRA, the survivor’s benefit will be based upon 82.5% of the amount the deceased was eligible for at their FRA, if that is more than the early benefits the deceased was receiving.
  • The “widow’s full retirement age” may be less than the surviving spouse’s normal FRA. The “widows FRA” (to get the full survivor benefit) is determined by subtracting 2 years from the survivor’s actual birth year, which may (or may not) result in the survivor being eligible for full benefits up to 4 months earlier than their normal FRA.
  • A surviving spouse can claim their survivor benefit independent of their own SS retirement benefit. Many surviving spouses choose to take their survivor benefit first and allow their own SS retirement benefit to grow to maximum.

Surviving Dependent Child Benefits

Children of the deceased are eligible for a survivor benefit if they are:

  • a minor under the age of 18 (or 19 if still in high school)
  • an unmarried disabled adult child whose disability started before age 22.

Biological children of the deceased who meet the above criteria are eligible for a survivor benefit; stepchildren or adopted children also qualify. In some unique situations, grandchildren or step-grandchildren who were dependent on the deceased may also be eligible for a survivor benefit.

The benefit available to a surviving dependent child is 75% of the deceased person’s Primary Insurance Amount, or “PIA,” which is the benefit the deceased was entitled to at full retirement age (or when they died).

The Family Maximum

Whenever multiple surviving dependents are collecting Social Security benefits on the record of a deceased person, the Family Maximum will apply. The Family Maximum sets a limit to how much in benefits can be paid to a family based upon one individual’s record. Typically, this limit is between 150% and 180% of the deceased person’s PIA (FRA benefit amount), up to the maximum individual benefit. If the family’s total survivor benefits exceed the Family Maximum, each survivor’s benefit amount will be proportionately reduced.

The Lump Sum Death Benefit

Social Security provides a onetime lump-sum death benefit of $255 to a surviving spouse. The survivor must have been living with the deceased at the time of death, or if living apart, collecting a spousal benefit from the deceased. If there is no surviving spouse, the death benefit can be paid to a dependent child who is otherwise eligible for a survivor benefit from the deceased.

Inquiries about survivor benefits rank high on the list of questions most frequently asked of The AMAC Foundation’s Social security Advisory staff. If you have questions about survivor benefits, contact us by phone at 1.888.750.2622, or via email at [email protected], for answers.

[1] The parent(s) of a deceased person, if legally dependent on the deceased, may also be eligible for a survivor benefit, but rules for such eligibility are strict.

[2] If the “widow limit” applies, full survivor benefits can be available before FRA.

[3] A disabled surviving spouse can collect reduced benefits as early as age 50.

[4] However, if the surviving spouse is already receiving benefits from the deceased before FRA, a reduced survivor benefit will be automatically awarded.