En español | Q. I know that Social Security provides monthly benefits for widows and widowers and their children. Can you explain how this program works?
A. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is best known for providing retirement benefits to 38 million Americans. The SSA also plays a less-noticed but equally significant role by providing financial help to Americans who have lost loved ones.
Under Social Security law, when a person who has worked and paid Social Security taxes dies, certain members of that person's family may be eligible for survivor benefits.
As a result, there are now about 5 million widows and widowers receiving monthly benefits from Social Security based on the earnings records of their deceased spouses. Benefits also go to many children of deceased workers.
Below is a list of who may be eligible to receive survivor benefits. Please be aware that the rules are complicated and the best source for personal information is Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday.
For more information, see: "Planning for Your Survivors."
Widows and widowers
- Widows and widowers who have reached full retirement age generally receive 100 percent of the spouse's benefit.
- They can take reduced survivor benefits as early as age 60-- or age 50 if disabled.
- If they are under full retirement age, they receive about 71.5 to 99 percent of the worker's benefit.
- They can receive benefits at any age if they take care of the deceased's child if the child is under age 16 or disabled. The individual caring for the child receives 75 percent of the worker's benefit.
- Benefits can be paid to unmarried children under 18, or up to age 19, if they are attending high school full time. The child receives 75 percent of the worker's benefit.
- Under certain circumstances, benefits can be paid to stepchildren, grandchildren or adopted children. Benefits can be paid to children at any age if they were disabled before age 22 and remain disabled.
- Benefits can be paid to dependent parents who are age 62 and older. For parents to qualify as dependents, the deceased worker -- that is, the son or daughter --would have had to provide at least one-half of the parent's financial support.
- If your divorced spouse dies, you can receive benefits as a widow or widower if the marriage lasted 10 years or more, you are age 60 or older (age 50 if disabled). Rules may vary if you remarry.
Q. What happens when widows or widowers who receive survivor benefits become eligible for their own retirement benefits?
A. Social Security provides widows and widowers with considerable flexibility in deciding how to take their benefits.
For example, a widow who took a reduced survivor benefit at age 60, can switch to her own earnings record when she becomes eligible at age 62-- if the benefit would be greater. Or she can wait to switch until she reaches full retirement age and receive her own full retirement benefit -- if that is higher.
Stan Hinden is a former columnist for the Washington Post specializing in retirement issues. He is the author of How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question for the Social Security Mailbox? Check out the archive. If you don't find your answer there, send a query.