Money & Policy

Social Security Benefits After You Die

You may have worked long enough for your family to collect survivor benefits

As you plan for the future, you'll want to think about what your family would need if you were to die now.

Social Security can help your family if you have earned enough Social Security credits through your work.
How You Earn Social Security Survivors Benefits

You can earn up to four credits each year. In 2011, for example, you earn one credit for each $1,120 of wages or self-employment income. When you have earned $4,480, you have earned your four credits for the year.

The number of credits needed to provide benefits for your survivors depends on your age when you die. The younger a person is, the fewer credits he or she must have for family members to receive survivors benefits. But no one needs more than 40 credits (10 years of work) to be eligible for any Social Security benefit.

But even if you don't have the required number of credits, benefits can be paid to your children and your spouse who is caring for the children. They can get benefits if you have credit for one and one-half years of work (6 credits) in the three years just before your death.

Benefits for Your Surviving Spouse

You probably know people who are receiving Social Security survivors benefits because they're a widow or widower. At present, there are about 5 million widows and widowers receiving monthly Social Security benefits based on their deceased spouse's earnings record. And, for many of those survivors, particularly aged women, those benefits are keeping them out of poverty.

  • Your surviving spouse can receive reduced benefits as early as age 60 or full benefits at full retirement age or older. If he or she is disabled, your surviving spouse can receive benefits as early as age 50.
  • Note: If your surviving spouse remarries after age 60 (age 50 if disabled), he or she will still be eligible for benefits on your record.
  • Your surviving spouse who has not remarried can receive survivors benefits at any age if she or he takes care of your child who is under age 16 or is disabled and receives benefits on your record.

Please note: If your surviving spouse will also receive a pension based on work not covered by Social Security, like government or foreign work, his or her Social Security benefit on your record may be affected.

Benefits for Your Surviving Divorced Spouse

If you have a surviving divorced spouse, he or she could get benefits just the same as a widow or widower provided that your marriage lasted 10 years or more.

Benefits paid to a surviving divorced spouse who meets the same age or disability requirement as a widow or widower won't affect the benefit amounts your other survivors will receive based on your earnings record.

If your former spouse is caring for your child who is under age 16 or disabled and getting benefits on your record, he or she will not have to meet the length-of-marriage rule. (The child must be your natural or legally adopted child.) But if he or she qualifies for benefits as a surviving divorced mother or father who is caring for your child, his or her benefits may affect the amount of benefits your other survivors will receive based on your earnings record.

Please note: If your surviving divorced spouse will also receive a pension based on work not covered by Social Security, like government or foreign work, his or her Social Security benefit on your record may be affected.

Survivor Benefits for Your Children

Your unmarried children who are under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) can be eligible to receive Social Security benefits when you die.

And your child can get benefits at any age if he or she was disabled before age 22 and remains disabled.

Besides your natural children, your stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren or adopted children may receive benefits under certain circumstances.

How Much Your Survivors Would Receive

How much your family would receive in benefits depends on your average lifetime earnings. The higher your earnings were, the higher their benefits would be. A basic amount is calculated as if you had reached full retirement age at the time you die.

Note: If you already receive reduced benefits when you die, survivor benefits are based on that amount.

These are examples of benefit payments:

  • Widow or widower, full retirement age or older — 100 percent of your benefit amount.
  • Widow or widower, age 60 to full retirement age — 71.5 to 99 percent of your basic amount.
  • Disabled widow or widower, age 50 through 59 — 71.5 percent.
  • Widow or widower, any age, caring for a child under age 16 — 75 percent.
  • A child under age 18 (19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or disabled — 75 percent.

Percentages for a surviving divorced spouse would be the same as above.

There is a maximum amount your family can receive together. There may also be a special lump-sum death payment.

These benefits may be affected if your widow or widower remarries. Also, there are limits on how much your survivors may earn while they receive benefits.

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