Who Is Entitled to Death Benefits in Social Security?

Who Is Entitled to Death Benefits in Social Security

Survivor benefits are based on the amount the deceased paid into Social Security during their lifetime.

Social Security is commonly known for paying retirement benefits to retirees, but it also pays out other types of benefits such as the Social Security survivors' benefit. These benefits are paid to widows, widowers, and dependents of eligible workers after they pass away, and can help the surviving loved ones get back on their feet.

However, there are rules to receiving the death benefit, specifically around who qualifies, what the amount is, and how to apply for them.

What are survivor benefits?

When you work and pay into Social Security, some of those taxes are for retirement benefits and others are for survivor benefits. Your family members may receive survivor benefits if you die, or you may receive survivor benefits when a family member dies. These benefits are monthly payments available to those eligible family members.

Additionally, a one-time death benefit payment of $255 is paid to the surviving spouse, as long as the spouse was receiving certain Social Security benefits on your record. Or, the payment can be made to a child who is eligible for benefits. The number of credits you need for family members to be eligible depends on how old you are when you die, but for most people, it’s necessary to work and pay Social Security taxes for at least 10 years.

What is the survivor benefit amount?

The amount of the survivor benefit is based on the earnings of the person who died. The more they paid into Social Security, the higher the benefits would be.

Benefit amounts are also calculated based on how much the deceased would have collected at full retirement age. Or, if the deceased already began collecting benefits earlier, any benefits paid to the surviving family would be based on that reduced amount.

The amount also depends on the survivor’s relationship to the deceased.

Spouses (including qualifying divorced spouses)

  • Widow or widower who reached full retirement age can receive 100% of the deceased’s benefit
  • If between age 60 and full retirement, they can receive 71.5% to 99% of the benefit
  • Those ages 50 through 59 can receive 71.5%
  • Widow or widower of any age caring for a child under age 16 can receive 75%

Children and others

  • Children under age 18 can receive 75% of the deceased’s benefit
  • Disabled dependent children can receive 75% of the benefit
  • A surviving dependent parent can receive 82.5% of the benefit
  • If two dependent parents survive, they are eligible to collect 75% each

While exact amounts can vary, there is a limit to the amount each family member can receive each month. Typically, this is equal to between 150% and 180% of the basic benefit rate.

There are also limits on how much survivors can earn while they receive benefits, and benefits can also be affected by other factors, such as if you get remarried.

Who qualifies for survivor benefits?

Family members who qualify for survivor benefits include:

  • A widow or widower aged 60 or older (age 50 if they have a disability that started before or within seven years of the worker’s death)
  • A surviving divorced spouse (under certain circumstances, including proving your marriage lasted 10 years or more)
  • A widow or widower who is caring for the deceased’s child under age 16 or who has a disability, regardless of age
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is younger than age 18, or age 18+ with a disability that began before age 22
  • A stepchild, grandchild, step grandchild, or adopted child (under certain circumstances)
  • Parents aged 62 or older who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support

Surviving spouses must also have been married for at least one year to be eligible to receive the spouse’s benefits unless the surviving spouse is the parent of the deceased spouse’s child.

Note that even if you’re divorced and remarry after age 60, the marriage will not affect your eligibility for survivor benefits.

How to apply for survivor benefits

You can’t report a death or apply for survivors benefits online, but the first step in applying for and collecting benefits is to notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) when a person dies. Sometimes the funeral home will do this, but you must be sure to provide the deceased person’s Social Security Number (SSN) to make the report.

To report a death or apply for benefits, call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). You can also visit your local Social Security office.

If you’re not already getting Social Security benefits, you should apply as soon as possible.

If you are already getting benefits on your spouse’s or parent’s record, you likely don’t need to file an application and the SSA will automatically change any monthly benefits you receive to survivors benefits. You may also get the lump-sum death payment automatically.

Documents you need for the survivor benefits application

The documentation you’ll need depends on whether you’re applying for widow/widower benefits, child’s benefits, mother’s or father’s benefits, the parent’s benefits, or the lump-sum payment.

Examples of documents you’ll need to apply include:


  • Proof of the worker’s death
  • Proof of birth/birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship (if not born in the U.S.0
  • W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax returns
  • Marriage certificate
  • Divorce decree
  • U.S. military discharge papers (if military service before 1968)


  • Child’s birth certificate or proof of adoption
  • Proof of the worker’s marriage to the child’s parent (natural or adoptive)
  • Proof of child’s citizenship (if not born in the U.S.)
  • W-2 forms or tax returns (if child had earnings last year)
  • Your birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship (if not born in the U.S.)


  • Proof of worker’s death
  • Your birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship (if not born in U.S.)
  • Military discharge papers
  • Proof of marriage
  • Child’s birth certificate

Parent’s benefits

  • Proof of birth/birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship (if not born in the U.S.0
  • W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax returns
  • Death certificate for the deceased child

Lump-sum death benefit

  • Proof of birth/birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship (if not born in the U.S.0
  • W-2 forms and/or self-employment tax returns
  • Death certificate for the deceased worker

When you mail the documents, be sure to include the SSN so the records can be matched with the correct application. Write this on a separate sheet of paper and include it in the envelope with the documents.

What is the “blackout period”?

Typically, widows or widowers don’t qualify for benefits until age 60, but they can collect payouts as the caregiver for the deceased’s children until they turn 16. Then, children qualify for benefits until they turn 18 (or 19 if they are still in school). However, between the child’s 18th birthday, when benefits end, and the spouse’s 60th birthday, when benefits resume, no benefits are paid. This is called the blackout period.

For example, say a widow loses her spouse when she’s 35 years old and she has a five-year-old child. As the caregiver, she can collect the survivor benefits until the child turns 16, or for 11 years. Then, the child will receive their benefits for two more years, until they are 18. At this point, the mom is 48 years old. She wouldn’t be eligible for payments again until she turns 60, so the blackout period would last 12 years.

How long do you receive survivor benefits?

Survivor benefits are payable to the surviving spouse for the rest of their life. Benefits for surviving children end at age 18, or if the child became disabled before age 22, they would receive benefits for life.

Restrictions apply for divorced spouses who are eligible for benefits.

Additional resources

Donna Frederick
After retiring from a career as an executive travel counselor in 2006, Donna Frederick embarked on a second career as a licensed insurance agent. During that first year, many clients told Donna how overwhelmed they felt by Medicare, but that her assistance helped them finally understand the Medicare program. That experience inspired Donna to focus her efforts on educating her clients to ensure they fully understand their Medicare options. Today, Donna takes pride in providing outstanding customer service and going the extra mile to make sure each client knows all of their options and has a sound understanding of their Medicare plan, from costs to coverage and all points in between.

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