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When a Social Security beneficiary dies, his or her surviving spouse is eligible for survivor benefits. About 3.8 million widows and widowers, including some who were divorced from late beneficiaries, were receiving survivor benefits as of March 2023.
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 claims benefits before reaching full retirement age. (Full retirement age for survivor benefits differs from that for retirement and spousal benefits; it is currently 66 and 2 months for people born in 1957 and will gradually increase to 67 over the next several years.)
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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 calling the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or contacting your local Social Security office.
How Social Security Benefits Work for Spouses and Survivors
Watch AARP’s free webinar for answers to common questions about how marriage, divorce or a spouse's death can affect what you get from Social Security. Explore these topics and much more:
- Eligibility rules for spousal and survivor benefits
- Claiming strategies to maximize your payment
- Divorced-spouse benefits and the impact of remarrying
Local offices fully reopened in April 2022 after being closed to walk-in traffic for more than two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Social Security recommends calling in advance and scheduling an appointment to avoid long waits.
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.