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When a relative dies...what you need to know about survivors benefits

How do I apply for benefits?

If you are not currently getting Social Security benefits

You should apply for survivors benefits promptly because, in some cases, benefits will be paid from the time you apply and not from the time the worker died.

You can apply by telephone or at any Social Security office. SS will need certain information, but do not delay applying if you do not have everything. Social Security will help you get what you need. The SSA will need either original documents or copies certified by the agency that issued them.

The information they need includes:

  • Proof of death - either from a funeral home or death certificate;
  • Your Social Security number, as well as the deceased worker's;
  • Your birth certificate;
  • Your marriage certificate, if you are a widow or widower;
  • Your divorce papers, if you are applying as a divorced widow or widower;
  • Dependent children's Social Security numbers, if available, and birth certificates;
  • Deceased worker's W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year; and
  • The name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be deposited directly into your account.

If you are already getting Social Security benefits

If you are getting benefits as a wife or husband based on your spouse's work, when you report the death to Social Security, they will change your payments to survivors benefits. If the agency needs more information, Social Security will contact you.

If you are getting benefits based on your own work, call or visit SS, and the agency will check to see if you can get more money as a widow or widower. You will receive the higher benefit, not a combination of the two types of benefits. You will need to complete an application to switch to survivors benefits, and they will need to see your spouse's death certificate.

How much will I receive?

The benefit amount is based on the earnings of the person who died. The more the worker paid into Social Security, the greater your benefits will be.

Social Security uses the deceased worker's basic benefit amount and calculates what percentage survivors are entitled to. The percentage depends on the survivors’ ages and relationship to the worker. Here are the most typical situations:

  • A widow or widower, at full retirement age or older, generally receives 100 percent of the worker's basic benefit amount;
  • A widow or widower, age 60 or older, but under full retirement age, receives about 71-99 percent of the worker's basic benefit amount; or
  • A widow or widower, any age, with a child under age 16, receives 75 percent of the worker's benefit amount.
  • Children receive 75 percent of the worker's benefit amount.

Maximum family benefits

There is a limit to the benefits that can be paid to you and other family members each month. The limit varies, but is generally between 150 and 180 percent of the deceased's benefit amount.

Pensions from work not covered by Social Security

If you get a pension from work where you paid Social Security taxes, that pension will not affect your Social Security benefits. However, if you get a pension from work that was not covered by Social Security— for example, the federal civil service, some state or local government employment or work in a foreign country—your Social Security benefit may be reduced.

For more information, ask for Government Pension Offset (Publication No. 05-10007), for government workers who may be eligible for Social Security benefits on the earnings record of a spouse; and Windfall Elimination Provision (Publication No. 05-10045), for people who worked in another country or government workers who also are eligible for their own Social Security benefits.

What if I work?

If you work while getting Social Security survivors benefits and are younger than full retirement age, your benefits may be reduced if your earnings exceed certain limits. (The full retirement age was 65 for people born before 1938 but will gradually increase to 67 for people born in 1960 or later.) To find out what the earnings limits are this year and how earnings above those limits reduce your Social Security benefits, ask for How Work Affects Your Benefits (Publication No. 05-10069).

There is no earnings limit beginning with the month you reach full retirement age.

Also, your earnings will reduce only your benefits, not the benefits of other family members.

What if I remarry?

Generally, you cannot get widow's or widower's benefits if you remarry before age 60. But remarriage after age 60 (or age 50 if you are disabled) will not prevent you from getting benefit payments based on your former spouse's work. And at age 62 or older, you may get benefits based on your new spouse's work, if those benefits would be higher.

Right to appeal

If you disagree with a decision made on your claim, you can appeal it. The steps you can take are explained in The Appeals Process (Publication No. 05-10041).

You have the right to be represented by an attorney or other qualified person of your choice. More information is in Your Right To Representation (Publication No. 05-10075).


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Not affiliated with the US Social Security Administration