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Who gets a Social Security death benefit?

Only the widow, widower or child of a Social Security beneficiary can collect the $255 death benefit, also known as a lump-sum death payment. Priority goes to a surviving spouse if any of the following apply: 

  • The widow or widower was living with the deceased at the time of death.
  • He or she was living separately but collecting spousal benefits on the deceased’s earnings record.
  • He or she was living separately but is eligible for survivor benefits on the deceased’s record.

In the absence of a qualifying widow or widower, the lump-sum payment can go to a son or daughter who is eligible for benefits on the deceased’s work record — that is, the child is unmarried and either a minor; an 18- or (in some cases) 19-year-old who is still in high school; or an adult offspring who is disabled. 

If the spouse or child was already receiving family benefits on the deceased’s record, the death benefit will typically be paid to them automatically once the death is reported to Social Security. If that is not the case, the survivor must apply for the death benefit within two years of the death. 

You can apply by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213 or visiting your local office.

[Editor’s note: Local Social Security offices are closed to walk-in visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many services are available online and by phone. If you have a critical situation regarding your benefits or need to update information attached to your Social Security number, such as your name or citizenship status, you may be able to schedule an in-person appointment. Offices are tentatively scheduled to fully reopen March 30. See Social Security's coronavirus page for more information.]

You may need to provide the late worker’s birth and death certificates and other documents. You might also need to answer questions about the deceased’s family, financial and Social Security status, as enumerated in Social Security form SSA-8.

If there is no eligible spouse or child to collect it, no death benefit is paid. 

Keep in mind

The death benefit is a one-time payment, not to be confused with survivor benefits, which are continuing payments made to the surviving spouse, ex-spouse, children or, in rare instances, the parents of the deceased.

Updated January 24, 2022