• Written by
    Lindsey Crossmier

    Lindsey Crossmier

    Financial Writer

    Lindsey Crossmier is an accomplished writer with experience working for The Florida Review and Bookstar PR. As a financial writer, she covers Medicare, life insurance and dental insurance topics for RetireGuide. Research-based data drives her work.

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  • Edited By
    Lamia Chowdhury
    Lamia Chowdhury, editor for RetireGuide.com

    Lamia Chowdhury

    Financial Editor

    Lamia Chowdhury is a financial content editor for RetireGuide and has over three years of marketing experience in the finance industry. She has written copy for both digital and print pieces ranging from blogs, radio scripts and search ads to billboards, brochures, mailers and more.

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  • Reviewed By
    Brandon Renfro, Ph.D., CFP®, RICP®, EA
    Brandon Renfro, RetireGuide Reviewer

    Brandon Renfro, Ph.D., CFP®, RICP®, EA

    Retirement and Social Security Expert

    Brandon Renfro is a Retirement and Social Security Expert and financial planner. He focuses on helping clients create a secure financial future in retirement and co-owns Belonging Wealth Management. He is also a former finance professor and writes for several publications.

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  • Published: March 6, 2023
  • Updated: October 20, 2023
  • 10 min read time
  • This page features 9 Cited Research Articles
Fact Checked
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A qualified expert reviewed the content on this page to ensure it is factually accurate, meets current industry standards and helps readers achieve a better understanding of retirement topics.

Cite Us
How to Cite RetireGuide.com's Article

APA Crossmier, L. (2023, October 20). How Do Survivors Benefits Work? RetireGuide.com. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from https://www.retireguide.com/social-security/survivors-benefits/

MLA Crossmier, Lindsey. "How Do Survivors Benefits Work?" RetireGuide.com, 20 Oct 2023, https://www.retireguide.com/social-security/survivors-benefits/.

Chicago Crossmier, Lindsey. "How Do Survivors Benefits Work?" RetireGuide.com. Last modified October 20, 2023. https://www.retireguide.com/social-security/survivors-benefits/.

Key Takeaways
  • Surviving spouses, unmarried children and parents of a deceased individual can qualify for survivors benefits.
  • The deceased must have worked for a certain period of time to qualify their family members for survivors benefits.
  • You can only apply for survivors benefits in-person or on the phone — not online.
  • The higher the deceased's income was, the higher the benefit will be.
  • The projected average monthly benefit amount for a surviving spouse over 60 years old is $1,845 for 2023.

Basics About Survivors Benefits

If you pass away, your family members can be eligible for monthly benefits through survivors benefits. Whoever passed away must have worked long enough and paid taxes into Social Security.

Social Security, also known as Old-Age Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI), provides survivors benefits to qualifying family members who have lost a loved one who they were financially dependent on. Beneficiaries of survivors benefits are typically spouses and children, though there are other qualifying exceptions.

As of December 2022, 14.8% of Social Security beneficiaries were spouses, children, widow(er)s and parents receiving survivors benefits. While survivors benefits aren’t as common as retirement benefits, which took up 73.6% of Social Security beneficiaries, they are still a crucial element of providing economic stability to those suffering a financial loss.

A widow(er) over 60 years old received an average survivor benefit amount of $1,705 a month in the month of December in 2022. In 2023, survivor benefits are receiving a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of 8.7%. The Social Security Administration stated that benefits will increase by $140 at minimum in 2023.

By taking the average survivors benefit amount from December 2022 and adding the minimum $140 increase, we can get a projected survivors benefit amount for 2023.

The projected average monthly benefit amount for aged widow(er)s is $1,845 for 2023.

Who Qualifies?

Surviving spouses, unmarried children and parents can qualify for survivors benefits. Even if the surviving spouse has divorced the deceased, they can still potentially qualify.

Family Members Who Qualify for Benefits
  • Surviving spouses over 60 years old (or 50 if they are disabled)
  • Surviving divorced spouses, with specific eligibility rules
  • Children of the deceased younger than 18 (or 19 if they are enrolled in school)
  • Children 18 or older who developed a disability before they turned 22
  • A stepchild, grandchild, step grandchild or adopted child, in specific instances
  • Parents who are 62 or older and dependent on the deceased for at least 50% of their support

In the past, same-sex couples were denied survivors benefits. As of June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in all states.

Since the ruling, same-sex couples can qualify for survivors benefits. If you were denied benefits prior to June 26, 2015, you can ask the Social Security Administration to reopen your application to start receiving survivors benefits.

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How Much Can You Qualify For?

How much you qualify for can vary depending on who is claiming the benefit, the deceased’s work history, if you’re still working while receiving benefits and the family maximum benefit limit.

Factors to consider:
Who is claiming the benefit?
When comparing average monthly survivor benefit amounts, aged widow(er)s received the highest benefit amount at $1,705 a month. A disabled widow(er) received the lowest average amount at $893 a month. A child of the deceased averaged at $1,067 a month. A parent of the deceased made the second highest average benefit amount at $1,537 a month. The data above was from the month of December in 2022.
The deceased’s work history
If the deceased made a high income, the survival benefit will reflect this. If the deceased had a low income, the benefit will be smaller.
If you’re still working while receiving benefits
If you’re still working while getting survivors benefits and younger than your full retirement age, your benefits may be reduced. Once you reach your full retirement age, your benefits will no longer be reduced, no matter how much you work.
Family maximum benefit limit
There is a family maximum benefit, which is the maximum limit a monthly benefit amount can be paid out, based on the deceased’s earnings. Generally, it is between 150% to 180% of the basic benefit rate. If your payable benefits exceed this limit, your benefits will be reduced.

If you’re the surviving spouse or child, you can also receive a special lump-sum payment of $255. You can ask the Social Security Administration if you qualify for the lump-sum payment when you apply for survivors benefits.

Blackout Periods

A blackout period is the time when there are no payable survivors benefits. The blackout period is based on age and the family members involved.

With the surviving spouse, they become eligible for survivors benefits once they turn 60. If they’re disabled, they can qualify for benefits at 50. Any time before their eligibility age is considered the blackout period when no survivors benefits are paid.

Things can get more complicated if benefits are being paid to a surviving spouse with a child. If a child is involved, benefits will be paid to the surviving spouse until the child turns 16.

Payments can continue until the child turns 18 (or 19 if they’re still in school), and the benefits are technically paid to the child, not the surviving parent. That being said, it might be a good idea for the benefits to be handled by the adult, not the child.

Below is an image which breaks down each period, including the blackout period, if you’re receiving benefits as the surviving spouse with a child.

Blackout period for survivors benefits
Expand

Benefits for Spouses

If you were married to or divorced the deceased — you can qualify for spousal survivors benefits. When you can start receiving survivors benefits as a spouse depends on your age, if you’re disabled and if you have a child.

Generally, you can start receiving spouse benefits when you turn 60 years old. However, if you’re disabled, you can start getting benefits when you turn 50. If you have a child with the deceased, and you haven’t remarried, you can start receiving survivors benefits at any age.

Your average amounts also vary, depending on what type of spouse you are.

Average 2023 Benefit Amounts by Type of Spouse
Type of Spouse Average monthly benefit amount*
Aged widow(er)$1,845
Young widow with child in care$1,372
Disabled Widow(er) $1,033

*The 2023 benefit amount was calculated by taking the average benefit amounts for each type of spouse from December 2022 and adding the COLA increase.

Maximizing Spousal Benefits

The best way to maximize your spousal benefits is to wait until you are your full retirement age (FRA). If you get your survivors benefits early, before you reach your FRA, you could only receive 71.5% of the deceased’s benefit amount. If you wait until you reach your FRA, you’d receive 100% of the intended benefit.

The Social Security Administration has a chart to help you determine your full retirement age. When you were born makes your FRA vary. For example, if you were born after 1960, you will reach your FRA when you turn 67.

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Benefits for Children and Others

Children and parents of the deceased qualify for dependent survivors benefits.

Children must be unmarried and under 18 years old (or 19 if they’re still in school) to receive survivors benefits. If the child developed a disability before they turned 22, they can qualify at any age. In certain instances, stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren or adopted children can also qualify for survivors benefits.

If your parents are over 62 years old, and they depend on you for at least 50% of their financial support, they can also qualify for survivors benefits.

Average Benefit Amounts by Beneficiary Type
Type of Beneficiary Average monthly benefit amount*
Child of deceased worker $1,207
Parent of deceased worker$1,677

*The 2023 benefit amount was calculated by taking the average benefit amounts for each type of spouse from December 2022 and adding the COLA increase.

How Are Social Security Survivors Benefits Calculated?

Survivors benefits are calculated by the earnings of the individual who passed away. Similar to retirement benefits, the deceased must have enough credits to qualify. Credits are received by working. In 2023, you earn one credit for each $1,640 earned, and you can earn four credits in one year.

Typically, the deceased will need 40 credits for you to qualify for survivors benefits. However, less credits could be needed to qualify if they passed away at a younger age. For example, some can get benefits if the deceased worked for at least 1 and 1/2 years of work, earning about six credits, in the last 3 years before their death.

What type of family member the benefit is going to, along with their age, can also adjust the survivor benefit amount.

How Much of the Survivors Benefit You Could Receive
Type of family member Family member’s age You could receive __% of the deceased benefit’s amount
Surviving spouseFull retirement age or older100%
Surviving spouse Age 60 to their full retirement age71.5% to 99%
Disabled surviving spouse Age 50 to 5971.5%
Surviving spouse caring for a child under 16 years oldAny age75%
Disabled child of deceasedUnder 18, or under 19 if they’re still in school 75%
Child of deceasedUnder 18, or under 19 if they’re still in school75%
Parent of the deceased 62 or older82.5%
Parents of the deceased62 or older75% to each parent

*Rules for surviving spouse also apply if you are divorced.

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Applying for Survivors Benefits

You can apply for survivors benefits in person at a local Social Security office near you or call to apply at 1-800-772-1213. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, dial 1-800-325-0778 instead. The Social Security Administration recommends reporting the death as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, there is no way to apply for survivors benefits online. You’ll need to mail all necessary documents needed to apply.

The documents required vary, depending on your relationship to the deceased. If you’re the surviving spouse, refer to the checklist below to ensure you have all required documents.

Documents Needed for Applying for Survivors Benefits as a Widow(er)
  • Proof of the worker's death
  • Birth certificate
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status
  • U.S. military discharge paper(s) if you had military service before 1968
  • For disability benefits, the two forms (SSA-3368 and SSA-827) that describe your medical condition and authorize disclosure of information to them
  • W-2 forms(s) and/or self-employment tax returns for last year
  • Final divorce decree, if applying as a surviving divorced spouse
  • Marriage certificate

If you’re applying on behalf of a child who lost a parent or guardian, refer to the checklist below.

Documents Needed for Applying for Survivors Benefits for a Child
  • The child's birth certificate or adoption papers
  • Proof of the worker’s marriage to the child’s natural or adoptive parent if the child is the worker’s stepchild
  • Proof of the child’s U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status
  • W-2 form(s) and/or self-employment tax returns if the child had earnings last year
  • If the worker is deceased, proof of the worker’s death

Make sure that you include your social security number with your mailed documents. This way, they can ensure the documents can be matched with the correct application.

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Last Modified: October 20, 2023

9 Cited Research Articles

  1. Social Security Benefits. (2023). Benefits Paid by Type of Beneficiary. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/ProgData/icp.html
  2. Social Security Benefits. (2023). Formula for Family Maximum Benefit. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/COLA/familymax.html
  3. Social Security Benefits. (2023). If You Are the Survivor. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html#h7
  4. Social Security Benefits. (2023). Planning for Your Survivors. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/onyourown.html
  5. Nesbit, J. (2022, October 13). Social Security Benefits Increase in 2023. Retrieved from https://blog.ssa.gov/social-security-benefits-increase-in-2023/
  6. Social Security Benefits. (2022, September). Survivors Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10084.pdf
  7. Social Security Benefits. (2015). Same-Sex Couples. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/people/lgbtq/couples.html
  8. Insurance Information Institute. (n.d.). Do Empty Nesters Need Life Insurance? Retrieved from https://www.iii.org/article/do-empty-nesters-need-life-insurance
  9. Social Security Benefits. (n.d.). Information You Need To Apply for Widow's, Widower's or Surviving Divorced Spouse's Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/forms/ssa-10.html