Social Security Survivors Benefits for a Spouse

Social Security survivors benefits are payments made to a deceased person’s spouse. Benefits provide monthly income for people who no longer have a spouse earning money. You can always switch from retirement benefits to survivors benefits if your survivors benefits are higher.

  • 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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    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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    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: June 7, 2023
  • 7 min read time
  • This page features 10 Cited Research Articles
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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.

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How to Cite RetireGuide.com's Article

APA Crossmier, L. (2023, June 7). Social Security Survivors Benefits for a Spouse. RetireGuide.com. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from https://www.retireguide.com/social-security/survivors-benefits/spouses/

MLA Crossmier, Lindsey. "Social Security Survivors Benefits for a Spouse." RetireGuide.com, 7 Jun 2023, https://www.retireguide.com/social-security/survivors-benefits/spouses/.

Chicago Crossmier, Lindsey. "Social Security Survivors Benefits for a Spouse." RetireGuide.com. Last modified June 7, 2023. https://www.retireguide.com/social-security/survivors-benefits/spouses/.

Key Takeaways
  • You can claim Social Security survivors benefits if you’re age 60 or older. If you’re disabled, you can claim benefits at 50.
  • You can receive survivors benefits of between 71.5% and 100% of your deceased spouse’s full retirement age Social Security benefits.
  • You can claim survivors benefits if you care for a child age 16 or younger or a child with a disability.
  • If you can delay claiming survivors benefits until you reach your full retirement age, the amount you’ll receive increases.

What Are Social Security Widows Benefits?

Social Security widows benefits is just another term for Social Security survivors benefits — they are the same benefit.

The widows benefits, or survivors benefits, can be a critical piece of retirement planning. They are especially important for anyone who makes significantly less money than their spouse or for someone who left the workforce to raise children.

These benefits can prove especially beneficial for women because, statistically, women live longer than men and may outlive the family’s savings.

Spousal benefits can be an important part of caring for a surviving spouse, so it’s important to consider this in your overall retirement plan and filing strategy.

Spousal Survivors Benefits for Couples

You can claim survivors benefits if your spouse dies and you are either age 60 or older, or are 50 or older with a disability.

You can also claim benefits at any age if you are caring for your spouse’s child who is either under age 16 or has a disability.

Your spouse must also have accrued enough Social Security work credits to be eligible. The number of credits needed depends on their age at the time of their death. However, anyone with at least 40 credits, or ten years of work, qualifies regardless of their age.

Couples Who Haven’t Claimed Benefits Yet

If neither you nor your deceased spouse received Social Security benefits, you won’t get your survivors benefits until you claim them. Depending on your needs, it may be best to wait until you reach full retirement age before claiming.

Couples Who Have Claimed Benefits

If you and your spouse collected Social Security benefits before your spouse died, you’ll receive the higher of the two benefit amounts after their death. You will not get the full amount of both benefits.

If your deceased spouse was collecting Social Security but you weren’t, you’ll need to claim your survivors benefits to get them, since they are not automatic. Depending on your age and financial situation, it may make sense to wait a few years to start collecting.

Survivors Benefits for Ex-Spouses

You may be eligible for survivors benefits as an ex-spouse if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and neither you nor your ex-spouse remarried. After age 60, you may remarry without affecting your eligibility for survivors benefits.

You can also get survivors benefits from an ex-spouse if you care for your ex-spouse’s minor-aged children or disabled child. In these conditions, you don’t have to have been married for any specific length of time to be eligible for benefits. However, the child must be your ex-spouse’s natural or legally adopted child to qualify.

How Much Can You Get?

The maximum survivors benefit amount depends on how much your spouse contributed to Social Security over their lifetime. Just like regular Social Security benefits, the maximum amount you can receive is $3,636 a month.

This is only possible if your spouse maxed out their Social Security contributions every year for at least 35 years. But there are several factors that may lower your benefit amount as well.

Factors That Lower Your Benefits

Some factors reduce the amount of money you receive each month. Among them are the following.

Factors That Decrease Benefits
  • Your age at the time of your claim
  • Whether you have a disability
  • Whether you have any dependents
  • Whether you receive a pension from a local, state or government job

In addition, if you work while you collect the benefits, you won’t get the full amount. If you’re below the full retirement age, you’ll also have $1 deducted from your survivors benefits for every $2 you earn above $21,240.

During the year in which you reach full retirement age, you’ll have $1 deducted from your benefits for every $3 you earn above $56,520.

How To Get the Full Benefit

Your Social Security survivors benefit amount is based on your deceased spouse’s Social Security retirement benefit amount. You’ll receive 71.5% to 100% of the full amount, depending on your circumstances. To receive the full amount, you’ll need to claim your survivors benefits at full retirement age or older.

Choosing Benefits

Depending on your work history and age, it’s possible that your Social Security benefits will be higher than your survivors benefits.

If so, and if you’re eligible to collect your Social Security benefits, you can default to the benefit that pays the most. However, you cannot receive both at the same time.

When Should You Claim Survivors Benefits?

Just like standard Social Security, you may have a decision to make regarding when to collect survivors benefits. While there is no time limit to claim survivors benefits, claiming at full retirement age gets you the highest possible benefit amount.

And just like Social Security benefits, survivors benefits become taxable after you earn $25,000 in total income as a single person. This gives you an additional incentive to claim your benefits later in life when you will likely be earning less money.

On the other hand, some people may need to collect survivors benefits early to remain financially stable. Others may be entitled to greater Social Security benefits based on their own work history, making it advantageous to claim survivors benefits early before later claiming their retirement benefits.

If you’re not sure when it makes sense to claim your survivors benefits, ask a Social Security representative about it. They’ll help you determine the best time for you to claim.

Documents Needed To Claim Social Security Survivors Benefits

You can apply for survivors benefits either by calling the Social Security Administration’s toll-free line at 1-800-772-1213 or by visiting a local office. While an appointment is not necessary, it may help to have your documents handy for a quicker process.

To claim your survivors benefits, you’ll need to provide the following documents:
  • Proof of your spouse’s death, such as a death certificate
  • Your birth certificate or proof of U.S. citizenship if you were not born in the U.S.
  • Your military discharge papers if you were in the military before 1968
  • Your W-2 forms or tax returns for the last year
  • Your marriage certificate
  • Your final divorce decree if applying for benefits from an ex-spouse

If you have a disability, you will also need to provide completed versions of forms SSA-3368 and SSA-827. This includes any medical records that verify the claims you’ve made on those forms.

Frequently Asked Questions About Survivors Benefits

What percentage of Social Security benefits does a widow receive?
Widowed spouses can claim between 71.5% and 100% of their deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits. You’ll receive the highest amount if you claim your benefits at full retirement age.
What is the difference between survivors benefits and widow benefits?
There is no difference between survivors benefits and widows benefits. These terms are two different names for the same payments issued by the Social Security Administration.
How long do survivors benefits last?
Survivors benefits last until the end of your life unless you collect Social Security retirement benefits. If your survivor’s benefits are higher than your Social Security retirement benefits, you can forgo your Social Security benefits and keep receiving survivors benefits instead. If you are receiving survivors benefits on behalf of a minor, your benefits may stop when the child turns 16.
Can common-law spouses receive survivors benefits?
No. You must provide a valid marriage certificate to claim survivors benefits for a deceased spouse. The Social Security Administration does not recognize common-law partnerships when it comes to survivor benefits.
Last Modified: June 7, 2023

10 Cited Research Articles

  1. Birken, E. (2023, February 9). How Much Social Security Will I Get? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/retirement/social-security-benefits/
  2. Social Security Administration. (2023, January). What You Need to Know When You Get Retirement or Survivors Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10077.pdf
  3. Rae, D. (2022, October 16). SSA Announces New 2023 Maximum Social Security Benefit. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrae/2022/10/16/ssa-announces-new-2023-maximum-social-security-benefit/
  4. Benefits.gov. (n.d.). Social Security Widow(er)'s Insurance Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.benefits.gov/benefit/4410
  5. National Academy of Social Insurance. (n.d.). Social Security for Widowed Spouses in Retirement. Retrieved from https://www.nasi.org/learn/social-security/social-security-for-widowed-spouses-in-retirement/
  6. Social Security Administration. (n.d.). Form SSA-10 | 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
  7. Social Security Administration. (n.d.). If You Are the Survivor. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html
  8. Social Security Administration. (n.d.). Receiving Benefits While Working. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/whileworking.html
  9. Social Security Administration. (n.d.). Receiving Survivors Benefits Early. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/survivorchartred.html
  10. Social Security Administration. (n.d.). Your Government Pension May Affect Social Security Benefits. Retrieved from https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/gpo-calc.html