Collecting the Social Security Benefits of a Deceased Spouse

There are several ways you might be able to collect on your deceased spouse’s Social Security disability benefits. Surviving spouse’s benefits or mother’s or father’s benefits might be available—even if you’re divorced.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

When the primary breadwinner of a household dies, the surviving family members might be left without enough income, especially if the deceased person 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" (sometimes referred to as a widow's benefit or widower's benefit).

A surviving divorced spouse—that is, a person who divorced their husband or wife before the spouse died—is also entitled to survivors benefits in some circumstances.

To be eligible for survivors benefits, you must have been married to your deceased spouse for at least a year before your spouse's death. In addition, your deceased spouse must have earned sufficient Social Security credits to be entitled to Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Social Security retirement benefits. (The rules differ somewhat between the two.)

This article focuses on collecting survivors benefits based on your deceased spouse's disability benefits (SSDI). Read on to learn about the eligibility requirements and how marital status or caring for your deceased spouse's children can affect those benefits.

Surviving Spouse's Benefit

If you were married for at least a year and your spouse was receiving or entitled to receive SSDI, you, as the surviving spouse, can get benefits in either of these circumstances:

  • You're disabled and between 50 and 60 years old (and your disability occur within seven years of your insured spouse's death).
  • You're 60 years old or older.

So, if you're a surviving spouse younger than 50 and not taking care of your spouse's minor or disabled children, you're not eligible for benefits if your spouse dies. Also, note that your survivors benefits will end (or never start) if you become eligible to receive significantly higher Social Security benefits on your own earnings record or if you remarry before a certain age. If you wait to remarry until you reach the age of 60, or 50 if you're disabled, your survivors benefits won't be affected.

(If your benefit is based on your deceased spouse's retirement benefits rather than disability benefits, you can't collect full benefits until you reach retirement age. Retirement age is 66 for people born before 1956 and 67 for people born in 1960 or later. However, you can begin to collect reduced retirement benefits as a surviving spouse at age 60.)

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 (from a disability that started before age 22).

This benefit is known as the "mother's benefit" or "father's benefit."

Usually, someone must have worked for at least 10 of the last 20 years to be eligible for disability or retirement benefits. But under a special Social Security rule, if your deceased spouse worked for at least one and one-half years in the three years before death and you meet all the other requirements, you can collect the mother's or father's benefit.

The mother's or father's benefit will stop when the child you're caring for turns 16 or ceases to be disabled, but it can start again when you, as the surviving spouse (or divorced surviving spouse), turn 60 (50, if you're disabled).

Divorced Spouse's Survivors Benefit

If your ex-spouse was a disabled worker receiving or entitled to receive SSDI, as a surviving divorced spouse, you're entitled to SSDI benefits if you're:

  • at least 60 years old
  • at least 50 years old and disabled, or
  • caring for your deceased ex-spouse's minor or disabled child.

It doesn't matter if your ex-spouse had remarried before dying. But if you remarry before age 60 (50 if you're disabled), you can't receive benefits as a surviving divorced spouse—unless your new marriage ends before the death of your ex-spouse. However, if you wait to remarry until you reach the age of 60 (50 if you're disabled), your SSDI survivors benefits will not be affected.

Amount of Survivors Benefits

The amount of your monthly Social Security survivors benefit check will depend on your deceased spouse's earnings record. You'll receive a percentage of the monthly amount your deceased spouse received or was eligible to receive in SSDI benefits at the time of death. Here are the general rules:

  • A surviving spouse who's reached full retirement age (66-67 years old, depending on when they were born) will receive 100% of their deceased spouse's monthly benefit.
  • A surviving spouse between age 60 and full retirement age will receive 71-99% percent of their deceased spouse's monthly amount.
  • A surviving spouse receiving a mother's or father's benefit will get 75% percent of their deceased spouse's monthly benefit amount.

However, if your deceased spouse's children are collecting SSDI benefits at the same time, your survivors benefit might be reduced. The total of your and the children's benefits can't be more than the maximum family benefit—generally 150% to 180% of your deceased spouse's monthly SSDI benefit.

Note that the benefits paid to a divorced spouse based on being over 60 or disabled aren't counted toward the maximum family benefit and won't affect a current spouse's or child's benefits. But benefits paid to a divorced spouse 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 a few hundred dollars (currently $255). To be eligible for this lump-sum payment, you must have been living in the same household as your spouse when they died.

Applying for Survivors Benefits

You can't apply for Social Security survivors benefits online. Instead, you'll need to call the SSA at (800) 772-1213 or contact your local Social Security office to start your application for benefits. You should apply for the benefits 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 the following:

  • your birth certificate
  • proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you weren't born in the United States
  • your marriage certificate
  • your Social Security number (and that of your deceased spouse)
  • your deceased spouse's or ex-spouse's death certificate (or other proof from the funeral home), and
  • your deceased spouse's W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax returns.

If you're applying for survivors benefits as a divorced spouse, you also need to provide your final divorce decree.

Don't delay filing your claim just because you're missing some documents. SSA representatives can help you gather any missing materials.

Note: The SSA requires you to submit the original of most documents, including your birth certificate. But you can submit photocopies of W-2 forms, self-employment tax returns, or medical documents. (Original documents will be returned to you.)

Updated May 26, 2022

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