Getting Your Financial Ducks In A Row Rotating Header Image

Social Security Survivor Benefits

survivor by tipiroThe Social Security system has provisions for taking care of surviving spouses of workers who have earned credits under the system.  There are two particular benefits that you should be aware of – a small death benefit of $255, and  Survivor Benefits based upon the worker’s Primary Insurance Amount.  It is the latter benefit that we are discussing today.

Social Security Survivor Benefits

When a primary wage earner dies, the Social Security system has a way to help care for the surviving spouse.  Survivor Benefits are generally equal to the primary wage earner’s retirement benefit – this benefit replaces other spousal retirement benefit (the one that is equal to 50% of the primary wage earner’s benefit, available while the primary wage earner is living – see here for more detail).

The mechanics of the Social Security Survivor Benefit can apply to widows or widowers at various ages, depending upon the circumstances, as well as to the children and/or parents of the primary worker.  We’ll cover each sort of individual in turn…

Widows and Widowers

When the primary wage earner dies, the surviving spouse is entitled to receive a retirement benefit based on the primary wage earner’s retirement benefit.  Of course, if the surviving spouse’s retirement benefit based upon his or her own record is equal to or more than the deceased spouse’s benefit, the surviving spouse will continue to receive only his or her own retirement benefit.

If the surviving spouse elects to begin receiving survivor benefits before Full Retirement Age (FRA), the benefit is subject to actuarial reduction.  Since a surviving spouse is eligible to begin receiving early benefits at age 60 (instead of age 62 for regular or spousal benefits), the “usual” age table is adjusted by 2 years.  Whereas FRA for regular or spousal benefits for those born between 1943 and 1954 is age 66, FRA for a survivor benefit is 66 for those born between 1945 and 1956.  (See this article for the FRA ages for retirement benefits and this article actuarial adjustments.  Adjust the ages and years by 2 for Survivor Benefit.)  If the surviving spouse is disabled, early benefits may be received any time after age 50, with the actuarial reduction assuming benefits begin at age 60 (no further reduction, in other words).

In addition to the benefit mentioned above, there is a Survivor Benefit available to a younger spouse if there are children under age 16 that the surviving spouse is caring for, or a child of any age who has become disabled before age 22.  This Survivor Benefit is equal to 75% of the FRA benefit (the PIA, Primary Insurance Amount) of the deceased spouse – and only lasts until the child reaches age 16.  At the same time, each child under age 18 is eligible for a Survivor Benefit (more on this later) until age 18.

There is no increase from delaying receipt of the survivor benefit after FRA, so a widow or widower should begin receiving Survivor Benefits at FRA if eligible. It should also be noted that divorced spouses who survive a deceased worker are also eligible for the Survivor Benefit, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years before the divorce.


Any child under age 18 (19 if attending high school) who survives a deceased eligible worker is eligible to receive a Survivor Benefit equal based on the PIA of the deceased parent.  This amount is 75% of the PIA of the surviving child’s parent, and this benefit will be payable until the child reaches age 18 (or 19). If the surviving child is disabled and the disability onset before age 22, there is no upper age limit for receipt of the child’s survivor benefit.

In addition to the offspring of the deceased worker, this benefit can be available to step-children, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, or adopted children of the deceased worker, if the deceased worker provided 1/2 or more support to the child.

Surviving Parents Over Age 62

In the event that the deceased worker had provided more than 1/2 of the support of one or more older parents (over age 62), the surviving parents are eligible to receive a Survivor Benefit as well.  This Survivor Benefit is based on the age of the surviving parent, and actuarial reductions apply to these benefits if received before FRA of the survivor.

Family Maximum

For the whole family of the deceased wage earner, that is, surviving children under 18, spouse and parents, there is a maximum benefit amount that applies – equal to between 150% and 180% of the deceased worker’s PIA (the calculation is complicated, using the bend point formulas).  The Social Security website has a calculator to help you understand this amount.

Bear in mind that any Survivor Benefit received by a surviving divorced spouse to not count toward this family maximum.


  1. Admin says:

    Jim, your information is dead-on here. Thx! It would also be helpful, because SS benefits are complicated, if you could explain how people can check for and apply for these benefits.

    1. jblankenship says:

      Thank you – and you’re right, we don’t have any articles specifically on applying for and checking status of benefits. I’ll add one soon!


Get involved!

Discover more from Getting Your Financial Ducks In A Row

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading