Collecting Social Security Benefits of a Deceased Spouse

There are several ways the "surviving" spouse may be able to collect benefits from Social Security. It gets a little complicated.

When the primary breadwinner of a household dies, the surviving family members may be left without sufficient resources, especially if the deceased husband or wife didn’t have life insurance. Fortunately, the surviving spouse of a deceased disabled worker is often eligible to collect what the Social Security Administration (SSA) calls a survivors benefit. (In the past this was often referred to as a widow’s benefit or widower’s benefit.)

To be eligible for benefits based on the record of a deceased husband or wife, the spouses must have been married to each other for at least a year. In addition, the deceased spouse must have earned sufficient Social Security credits to be entitled to Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Social Security retirement benefits. This article focuses on deceased spouses who were entitled to disability benefits; the rules differ a bit when a surviving spouse collects a benefit based on the deceased husband or wife’s retirement benefits.

A surviving divorced spouse – that is, a spouse who divorces a husband or wife before the husband or wife dies – is also entitled to a survivors benefit in some circumstances.

Mother’s or Father’s Benefit

The surviving spouse (or surviving divorced spouse) of a deceased worker who was eligible for disability or retirement benefits can get a monthly benefit check if the spouse cares for at least one child of the deceased worker who is under age 16 or disabled (if the disabled child is over age 22, the child must have been disabled since before age 22). This benefit is known as the “mother’s benefit” or the “father’s benefit.”

Usually a deceased spouse must have worked for at least 10 of the last 20 years in order to be eligible for disability or retirement benefits, but under a special Social Security rule, if the deceased spouse worked for at least one and one-half years in the three years before death, the mother’s or father’s benefit will be paid.

The mother’s or father’s benefit will stop when the child turns 16 or ceases to be disabled, but can restart again when the surviving spouse (or divorced surviving spouse) turns 60 (or if disabled, turns 50).

Widow’s or Widower’s Benefit

If the wife or husband of a disabled spouse was married to the disabled spouse for at least a year before the disabled spouse died and the disabled spouse was receiving or entitled to receive SSDI, the surviving spouse can get benefits in these either of these circumstances:

  • The surviving spouse is disabled and between 50 and 60 (the disability must occur within seven years of the insured worker’s death).
  • The surviving spouse is 60 years old or older.

This means that a surviving husband or wife who is younger than 50 and not taking care of minor or disabled children is not eligible for the survivors benefit when the spouse dies. Note that a surviving spouse’s benefits will end, or never start, if the surviving spouse remarries or becomes eligible to receive significantly higher Social Security benefits on her own record.

(When the widow or widower’s benefit is based on the deceased’s spouse retirement benefits rather than disability benefits, the surviving spouse can’t collect benefits until reaching retirement age. Retirement age is 66 for people born before 1956 and 67 for people born after 1960. However, the surviving spouse can begin to collect reduced retirement benefits at age 60. )

Divorced Spouse’s Survivors Benefit

If the disabled worker was receiving or entitled to receive SSDI, a surviving divorced spouse is entitled to SSDI benefits if she is 6o years or older, 50 years or older and disabled, or caring for her deceased ex-husband’s minor or disabled child. For more information, see our article on survivor benefits.

Amount of Survivors Benefits

The amount of a surviving spouse’s monthly Social Security check will depend on the earnings record of the deceased spouse. The surviving spouse will receive a percentage of the monthly amount the deceased spouse received if he or she was collecting SSDI at the time of death, or would have received if he or she had started to collect benefits. Here are the general rules:

  • A surviving spouse who is 66 or 67 (whichever is full retirement age for the surviving spouse’s year of birth) will receive 100% of the deceased worker’s monthly amount.
  • A surviving spouse who is between age 60 and full retirement age will receive 71-99% percent of the deceased worker’s monthly amount.
  • A surviving spouse who is receiving a mother’s or father’s benefit will receive 75% percent of the deceased worker’s monthly amount.

However, if the deceased worker’s children are collecting SSDI benefits at the same time, the surviving spouse’s benefit might be reduced. The total of the spouse’s benefit and the children’s benefit cannot be greater than the maximum family benefit, which is generally 150% to 180% of the deceased worker’s monthly SSDI benefit.

Note that the benefits paid to a divorced spouse based on being over 60 or disabled are not counted toward the maximum family benefit and won’t affect a current spouse’s or child’s benefits. However, benefits paid to a divorced spouse who is collecting a mother’s or father’s benefit are counted toward the maximum family benefit.

Lump Sum Death Benefit

When a disabled worker entitled to Social Security benefits dies, the surviving spouse will receive a one-time death benefit worth several hundred dollars (currently $255) if the surviving spouse was living in the same household.

Applying for Spousal Benefits

Call the Social Security Administration (SSA) at (800)772-1213 to start your application for the survivors’ benefit. You should apply for the survivors benefit soon after your husband or wife dies, since survivors benefits are usually paid from the time you apply, not from the date of death.

You’ll need to provide the SSA with your birth certificate, your marriage certificate, your Social Security number (and that of the disabled worker), your deceased spouse or ex-spouse’s death certificate (or other proof from the funeral home), and the deceased worker’s W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax returns.

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