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How Survivor Benefits are Treated

social security benefits taxedWhen you’re married to someone who has worked under the Social Security taxation system, you have two different benefits that may be available to you: Survivor Benefits, and Spousal Benefits. These two benefits may be more than the benefit you’ve earned under your own working record.

Spousal Benefits are available while your spouse (or ex-spouse) is still alive. Survivor Benefits are available after your spouse’s (or ex-spouse’s) death.

Social Security Survivor Benefits are much different from Spousal Benefits in several ways. In fact, there’s very little to compare between the two, other than that they are benefits for the spouse or ex-spouse of someone who earned a Social Security Retirement Benefit. Here are the primary things that you need to know about Survivor Benefits:

  • Survivor Benefits can be claimed as early as age 60.  Of course, as with all early claims for benefits, the amount will be reduced if you claim earlier than Full Retirement Age (FRA). At age 60 your Survivor Benefit would be reduced to 71.5% of your late spouse’s benefit amount (or PIA (Primary Insurance Amount) if he or she wasn’t at FRA). Determining the actual Survivor Benefit amount is a complex process.
  • Survivor Benefits are based upon 100% of the amount of benefit (at your FRA) that the deceased spouse was or should be receiving, whereas Spousal Benefits are based upon the PIA, and then only at a 50% maximum rate.
  • Survivor Benefits can also be applied for separately from your own retirement benefit – meaning that you can receive Survivor Benefits while delaying receipt of your own retirement benefit (if it’s higher or will be higher) in order to receive Delayed Retirement Credits up to age 70.
  • Survivor Benefits are only payable if the surviving spouse has not remarried before age 60. After age 60, the surviving spouse can remarry and still receive Survivor Benefits based upon the deceased spouse’s record.
  • A disabled surviving spouse can collect benefits as early as age 50 – at the same rate as if waiting to age 60 – 71.5% of the deceased spouse’s benefit.
  • If a surviving spouse is caring for a child under the age of 16, a different type of Survivor Benefits can be claimed until the child or children are over age 16. This benefit, known as a Mother’s Benefit or Father’s Benefit, is equal to 75% of the deceased spouse’s benefit (or PIA if the deceased spouse was not receiving benefits). This is only available to the surviving parent while the child is under age 16.
  • Survivor Benefits can also be paid to children of the decedent, provided they are under age 19 and a full time student. If the child is disabled (prior to age 22), Survivor Benefits can still be paid to the child after age 19. The child’s Survivor Benefit is at a 75% rate of the decedent’s benefit.
  • If the parents of the person who earned the Social Security benefit were dependent upon the worker, they can also receive a Survivor Benefit, known as the Parent’s Benefit, if they are age 62 or older. This benefit is 82.5% of the worker’s benefit amount if there is only one parent claiming, or if there are two dependent parents, each can claim a 75% benefit.

These Survivor Benefit rules also apply to ex-spouses who become widows or widowers, as long as the ex-spouse was married to the ex-spouse for at least ten years, and the ex-spouse did not remarry (and remain married) before age 60.


  1. Christine says:

    Would a potentially wise strategy be for an unmarried widow to take the survivor benefit at FRA, and then switch to her own retirement benefit at 70, assuming her retirement benefit is greater than the survivor benefit?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Absolutely – this is a good use of the rules in your favor. Since the Survivor Benefit and the Retirement Benefit are not linked (other than the fact that you cannot be receiving both at the same time), your filing early for one does not impact the other.

      1. Lee says:

        Just to clarify the “benefit amount (at your FRA)” in the second bullet, you previously wrote “ To start with, if the late spouse started his or her benefits at or after FRA, then the amount of benefit for our calculation is equal to the actual monthly benefit amount that the deceased was receiving upon his or her death.”

        1. jblankenship says:

          Yes, that’s correct. The distinction in my parenthetical (at your FRA) refers to the age of the survivor, and not the deceased individual, if that helps clarify.

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