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Survivor benefits may be payable to the spouses, former spouses, children and parents of a person who had qualified for or was collecting Social Security benefits at the time of death. How long survivor benefits last depends on who is getting them.
Widows and widowers
Most recipients of survivor benefits — two-thirds of them as of October 2022 — are older surviving spouses or surviving divorced spouses of deceased workers. Generally, spouses and ex-spouses become eligible for survivor benefits at age 60 — 50 if they are disabled — provided they do not remarry before that age.
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These benefits are payable for life unless the spouse begins collecting a retirement benefit that is greater than the survivor benefit. Beneficiaries entitled to two types of Social Security payments receive the higher of the two amounts.
Mothers and fathers
Social Security can pay what it calls “mother’s or father’s insurance benefits” to surviving spouses and ex-spouses of any age if they are caring for children or dependent grandchildren of a deceased worker who are younger than 16 or disabled.
Mother’s and father’s benefits end if the surviving spouse or ex-spouse meets any of these criteria:
- They no longer have a child in their care who is younger than 16 or disabled and entitled to benefits on the late worker’s earnings record.
- They remarry. Some exceptions exist if the marriage is to someone receiving certain kinds of Social Security benefits.
- They become entitled to widow’s or widower’s benefits.
- They become entitled to a retirement benefit that exceeds any survivor benefit.
More than 2 million children of late beneficiaries receive survivor benefits. Generally, such payments stop when a child turns 18. Benefits can continue until as late as age 19 and 2 months if the child is a full-time student in elementary or secondary education or with no age limit if the child became disabled before age 22.
In almost all instances, getting married will end a recipient child’s survivor benefits, even if the child still qualifies based on age or disability.
Surviving stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and adopted children also might qualify for survivor benefits, subject to the rules above.
Parents of a deceased worker can receive survivor benefits, singularly or as a couple, if they are 62 or older and the worker was providing at least half of their support. As with widows and widowers, these benefits are payable for life unless the parent remarries or starts collecting a retirement benefit that exceeds the survivor benefit.
Keep in mind
- Remarrying after age 60 (50 if disabled) does not affect eligibility for widow or widower benefits.
- Survivor benefits you lose as a result of remarrying before that age can be reinstated if the later marriage ends because of death, divorce or annulment.