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How does Social Security work when a spouse dies?

When a Social Security beneficiary dies, his or her surviving spouse is eligible for survivor benefits. A surviving spouse can collect 100 percent of the late spouse’s benefit if the survivor has reached full retirement age, but the amount will be lower if the deceased spouse claimed benefits before he or she reached full retirement age. (Full retirement age is currently 66 but is gradually increasing to 67 over the next several years.)

If you were already receiving spousal benefits on the deceased’s work record, Social Security will in most cases switch you automatically to survivor benefits when the death is reported. Otherwise, you will need to apply for survivor benefits by phone at 800-772-1213 or in person at your local Social Security office.

In most cases, a widow or widower qualifies for survivor benefits if he or she is at least 60 and had been married to the deceased for at least nine months at the time of death. But there are a few exceptions to those requirements:

  • If the late beneficiary’s death was accidental or occurred in the line of U.S. military duty, there’s no length-of-marriage requirement.
  • You can apply for survivor benefits as early as age 50 if you are disabled and the disability occurred within seven years of your spouse’s death.
  • If you are caring for children from the marriage who are under 16 or disabled, you can apply at any age.

Whether you have wed again can also affect eligibility. If the remarriage took place before you turned 60 (50 if you are disabled), you cannot draw survivor benefits. You regain eligibility if that marriage ends. And there is no effect on eligibility for survivor benefits if you remarry at or past 60 (50 if disabled).

The survivor benefit is generally calculated on the benefit your late spouse was receiving from Social Security at the time of death (or was entitled to receive, based on age and earnings history, if he or she had not yet claimed benefits). The actual amount of your payment will differ according to your age and family circumstance:

  • As noted above, if you have reached full retirement age, you get 100 percent of the benefit your spouse was (or would have been) collecting.
  • If you claim survivor benefits between age 60 (50 if disabled) and your full retirement age, you will receive between 71.5 percent and 99 percent of the deceased’s benefit. (The percentage gets higher the older you are when you claim.)
  • If you apply on the basis of caring for a child who is under 16 or disabled, you can collect 75 percent of the late spouse’s benefit, regardless of your age.

Keep in mind

  • You will not receive a survivor benefit in addition to your own retirement benefit; Social Security will pay the higher of the two amounts.
  • If you are the divorced former spouse of a deceased Social Security recipient, you might qualify for survivor benefits on his or her work record.
  • It does not matter whether a surviving spouse worked long enough to qualify for Social Security on his or her own. He or she can still collect benefits on the deceased spouse’s work record.

Published October 10, 2018

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