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8 Questions: Social Security Survivor Benefits

Photo courtesy of Patrik Goethe on

Photo courtesy of Patrik Goethe on

In this previous article we addressed some of the most common questions about Social Security Spousal Benefits. Keeping with the theme of developing FAQ sheets, today I’ll go through some of the most common questions about Social Security Survivor Benefits.

Survivor Benefits are available when a Social Security recipient passes away and leaves surviving dependents – spouse, children, and other dependent family members.

Social Security Survivor Benefits FAQ

1. Q: What survivor benefits are available to my spouse?

A: If your spouse is at least age 60 (or age 50 if disabled), he or she may be eligible for a survivor benefit that is based upon your benefit upon your passing. How the benefit is calculated becomes very complicated, with factors of the age of the surviving spouse, the benefit status of the deceased spouse (whether or not the late spouse was receiving benefits at death), as well as when the benefits began if he or she was already receiving benefits.

The maximum benefit that can be received by a surviving spouse who is at Full Retirement Age is 100% of the benefit that the late spouse was receiving upon his or her death. The minimum is 71.5% of the decedent’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) – the amount that the late spouse would receive (or would have received) if he or she filed for benefits at his or her Full Retirement Age.

If the surviving spouse is under age 60 and not disabled, the survivor benefit is only available if the surviving spouse is caring for at least one child/dependent of the late spouse who is under the age of 16. This benefit is equal to 75% of the decedent’s PIA.

2. Q: What survivor benefits are available to my other dependents?

A: Survivor benefits are available to minor children when a parent or legal guardian who has at least 40 quarters of coverage dies. For a child under age 18 (19 if a full-time student), the benefit is 75% of the decedent’s PIA. If the child is disabled prior to age 22, this benefit is available for life.

For parents, grandparents or other dependents who were provided 50% or more support by the decedent, a dependents’ survivor benefit of 75% is also available.

3. Q: What survivor benefits can I receive when my ex-husband dies?

A: As a surviving ex-spouse, if your marriage lasted for at least 10 years and you have not remarried you are eligible for the same benefits as if you were currently married to the decedent when he passed away. So, as long as you are 60 years of age or older, you can file for benefits based on the late ex-spouse’s record.

4. Q: Are there any limits to the amount of benefits that can be paid on an individual decedent’s record?

A: There is a Family Maximum benefit amount (FMax) that ranges from 150% to 180% of the primary numberholder’s PIA. If the total benefits that are being paid on an individual record exceeds the FMax, all benefits are reduced pro rata to the maximum. Survivor benefits paid to an ex-spouse of the decedent are not counted toward the FMax limit.

5. Q: Are there any restrictions for a surviving spouse to receive survivor benefits?

A: If a surviving spouse remarries before age 60, he or she is not eligible for survivor benefits based on a deceased spouse. If he or she subsequently divorces or the current spouse dies (making the surviving widow(er) no longer currently married), survivor benefits are once again available to him or her. The same restriction applies to an ex-spouse.

6. Q: Does receiving a survivor benefit have an impact on my own retirement benefit? I am 60 years old, and will be eligible for a larger benefit based upon my own record when I reach Full Retirement Age.

A: As long as you’re eligible (or will be) for the benefits, you can take either the survivor benefit first and switch to your own benefit later if it’s more, or vice versa. Filing for a survivor benefit early has no impact on a later retirement benefit, and the same goes for filing early for a retirement benefit – no impact on future survivor benefits.

7. Q: Are there earnings limits on survivor benefits?

A: Yes, just the same as with other benefits, if you earn more than the annual limit in any year before you reach FRA, $1 for every $2 over the limit ($15,480 in 2014) will be withheld by Social Security. During the year that you will reach FRA, the limit is increased to $41,400, and the withheld benefits are only $1 out of every $3 over the limit. These withheld funds will be credited back to you once you reach FRA. These limits apply to any survivor benefits, whether spouse, dependents’, or ex-spouse survivor benefits.

8. Q: Are there any benefits available if the late spouse did not have enough quarters of coverage, such as if he was very young?

A: For the surviving spouse caring for a child younger than age 16, reduced benefits are available if the deceased spouse had earned at least 6 quarters of credit in the three years prior to his or her death.  Any amount of quarters between the minimum of 6 and the maximum of 40 would allow for a phased increase in the benefit amount.


  1. Lynn says:

    I’m receiving benefits from my deceased ex husband, I was wondering what are the stipulation on what I. Can own and soon. Can you help with these questions.

    1. jblankenship says:

      ?? I’m not sure what you’re asking…?

  2. Lori says:

    My husband passed in 2011, and both of my children began receiving benefits. I myself, have never received benefits. My oldest child aged out of eligibility, but my youngest was so much younger that she still qualified to receive his benefit as well. SS rules state that she can only receive so much, so they transferred my older child’s portion to me, to receive on her behalf. It is in her name. Is she still entitled to receive both portions if I remarry?

    1. jblankenship says:

      If the benefit is in the name of your (still minor) child, your marital status should have no affect on it. Check with SSA to be sure, but that’s my understanding.

  3. Kimberly Snow-Hobby says:

    Hello, My Daughter is receiving Survivor benefits. She will be 18 in the summer then going to be a Senior in High school next year while she is 18. She wants to take dual credit courses at local college that equal both college and high school credits through her high school. Will that be acceptable to SS to continue to receive benefits? or do her courses need to be high school only?

    1. jblankenship says:

      She should be eligible for the survivor benefit up to her age 19 (if attending high school full-time) or graduation from high school, whichever comes first. If she is not attending high school full-time, the survivor benefit will cease upon her reaching age 18.

      To understand what “attending high school full-time” means, you should contact or visit a Social Security office.

  4. Arlene says:

    My daughter passed at age 40 leaving 2 sons.i have full custody.when i went to s.s. for survivors benefits they said she didnt have enough benefits..any other options?

    1. jblankenship says:

      Unfortunately, if she did not have enough quarters earned for insured status, there’s nothing else available from Social Security.

  5. Tina says:

    My two sons are receiving social security death benefits from their father. My oldest is 18, and finishing up highschool. The younger one is 9 years old. My question is how does social security determine how much my youngest son will receive once my oldest stops receiving benefits after his graduation from high school? I have researched, and can’t find anything on it. Currently both boys receive $1,159 each per month. I am needing to plan ahead for when my oldest graduates.

    1. jblankenship says:

      Without knowing the specifics behind the benefit amount I cannot help with the calculation. You can ask Social Security to estimate this for you.

      1. Tina says:

        Thank you.

  6. jaquie says:

    hi i’m 17 and i receive survivor benefits threw my mom because of my dad passing away. i was wondering if i am able to work or if it would cancel my benefits?

    1. jblankenship says:

      If you earn more than $15,720 in 2016, for every $2 over that amount you will lose $1 in survivor benefits.

  7. Emily says:

    from Emily

    My husband passed away in NOV/2014. My 5 year old daughter and I are receiving survivor’s benefits. I’m currently able to save all of my daughter’s benefits for her future. Will her benefit be reduced or eliminated in the future if I report this savings on the representative payee report?

    1. jblankenship says:

      I wouldn’t think so – it’s a valid use of the funds to save for her future.

    2. Keith Wilson says:

      Unfortunately I am in the same situation. My wife passed away in 2006 and left me with a 5 year old son who has been receiving survivor benefits since 2006. I, too, was able to save a large portion of the benefit for his future well being. I am also concerned about the same thing you are concerned about. I read where a saved amount of benefits cannot exceed $2000 or you run the risk of losing benefits. The only thing is I’m not exactly sure which benefits that rule applies to, whether it be Supplemental Security Income, or Survivor benefits for a child.

  8. Malita says:

    I am 68 and receiving social security disability. My husband passed away 11 months ago and was also receiving social security disability. He was getting $200 more than me. Is it too late for me to claim his amount?

    1. jblankenship says:

      No, you should be able to receive the survivor benefit (also called widow’s benefit at Social Security) if it’s larger than the benefit that you receive based on your own record.

  9. Ann says:

    Social security survivors benefits for minor children with current wife, and also minor children with ex wife.
    How is the family maximum divided?

    My husband and I are trying to figure out how much life insurance to have on him.
    We feel that the amount I would get and our children would receive from social security survivors benefits could help offset the amount of life insurance we need if my husband were to pass away. However we need more substantial numbers to know the amount of life insurance needed — to help offset the costs I would incur monthly if we were to lose his income due to his passing.

    Here is the situation.

    Husband and I married for 2 years (and plan on being married forever).

    We have 2 children together, they are 5 and 1 years old.
    I am a stay at home mom and have not worked since 2013.
    So 0 income on my part. We do file our tax return as married/joint.

    Husband was married previously for 3 years and has 2 children with his ex wife. Those children are 16 and 14. Ex-wife does work a full time job and has a salary of 50k a year.

    If my husband were to pass away how would the social security survivors benefits be divided up amongst myself and the 4 minor children?
    Our family maximum on my husbands record states $4045 a month.

    Is it simply taking the 4045 a month and dividing by 5?

    Also as the kids age out of receiving survivors benefits do the other benefits go up to a maximum of 75% of the family maximum each month?

    Right now this is what it says we are allowed on the ss website.

    Your child: $1,733 a month
    Your spouse who is caring for your child: $1,733 a month
    Your total family benefits cannot be more than $4,045 a month.

    Thanks for your help.

    1. jblankenship says:

      In this case the FMax is divided evenly among the five possible beneficiaries. As beneficiaries become ineligible the FMax is split among the remaining eligible beneficiaries, up to a maximum of 75% per beneficiary (while the spouse is under Full Retirement Age). Upon reaching FRA the spouse is eligible for a 100% benefit rather than 75%. If this occurs while children are also eligible and FMax is still an issue, the spouse eligible for a 100% benefit receives a larger share in proportion.


      1. Ann says:

        Hi it’s Ann again. I appreciate your response to my question a few days ago.

        I do have one more question but on a separate but relatable topic.

        I’m immensely concerned about the death of my 2nd husband due to my oldest daughter (19 in December of 2015) father dying many years ago. Oldest daughters father and I were not married so I never received benefits on his record.

        My oldest daughter has been receiving survivor benefits since her fathers death. My daughter is set to graduate high school this spring at the age of 19 and 6 months.

        Daughter is still receiving benefits and is scheduled to continue to receive benefits to June according to 3 different SS CSR’s spoken to on the phone.

        According to the SS rules daughters benefits were supposed to end this month in Feb. (from our understanding)

        SS system says her benefits don’t end till June. After asking why many times we cannot get a definite answer. Even logging into the ss website daughter is supposed to have another deposit made to her account in March. This worries us because she doesn’t want to have to pay the money back if its determined to be a mistake. Yet 3 phone calls hasn’t fixed anything.

        Can you help us with this? What are the rules, are we wrong and she is legally entitled to continue to receive survivors benefits till she graduates this spring at the age of 19 1/2?

        Thanks again


        1. jblankenship says:

          Sorry that I can’t help – only to agree with your assessment, which is that benefits should end upon her reaching age 19. I think the best course of action would be to place the additional monies into a separate account and not touch them for a period of time, even up to a couple of years, after the time that she has reached age 19. All the while, I believe you should continue pursuing a definitive answer as to why the benefits are being paid.


  10. Joe says:

    Hi Jim,

    Example: I’m 81 years old and my wife was passed away in 1988. Too late to apply for survivors benefits? Retired at 55. I’m confused about this policy, survivors must apply for this payment within two years of the date of death? Should I go to the Social Security office for survivors benefits?

    1. jblankenship says:

      You can either go to the local office, or call the hotline, or go to and apply for a survivor benefit. I’m not aware of a two-year limit on applying – however, I learn something new every day.

  11. Pam Jones says:

    Dear Jim,

    My husband passed away May 2014 at the age of 72. This August 2015 SSA called me to go over whether I should apply for disability (NO) or such and it was determined that I should come into their office on Oct 1 2015 to apply for survivor benefits to start at my FRA on Jan 2016. Before finishing the conversation with the agent I asked what my benefit would be and she said that I would receive what my husband was receiving at his death. When I applied at the office on Oct 1 2015, I was given an amount approx. $700. less than what my spouse was receiving. He delayed his retirement until 70 because we were told I would receive more as his survivor. I told the agent that it was not the amount I was told in August and she HISSED at me that I was not entitled to my husband’s benefit. I left in shock.
    I called the next day to say there was an error on the fact sheet, the conversation was heated but non-threatening and I told her that I did not agree with how things were done and she didn’t like it and said she was hanging up. I have called but have never received a call back. My husband and I worked in Missions and Theological Colleges in South Africa for over 25 years I planned on returning there to settle the estate with our lawyer there and without a letter on my Survivor income I can only go on a 3 month visa. I have seen where there are advocates for disability claims but nothing on survivor claims. Is there something you can tell me that would help me get through this difficulty?

    Pam Jones

    1. jblankenship says:

      Unfortunately I don’t know enough about your situation to understand why the benefit would be less than what your husband was receiving upon his death. The only way I know for you to work this out is to go back to SSA and work through it with them. The primary thing you need to get from them is an explanation of why the benefit is the amount they are quoting. Are you by any chance younger than Full Retirement Age (66)? That’s one possible explanation, as when you file for survivor benefits prior to your FRA the benefit is reduced.


  12. Karen Book says:

    Is there a benefit for remaining parent if parents were not married but lived together 8 years? The child is 8 years old

    1. jblankenship says:

      Unfortunately I don’t believe there is a benefit if the parent’s were not married. The child is still eligible for benefits up to age 18, however.

      You might check with SSA on this one – and let me know if you find out differently. From everything I have read about it though, the parents must have been married for the surviving parent to receive benefits.


  13. Angela says:

    Thanks Jim. Very helpful. I’m not 100% sure whether taking the survivor benefit when I’m 60 will later impact taking my deceased husband’s retirement benefit. His income was always much higher than mine so I’ll likely want his retirement benefit rather than mine. Can I take survivor benefits at 60 and also later maximize his retirement benefit at 66 or 70? BTW, I’m waiting for the next edition of your book in December.

    1. jblankenship says:

      Hi Angela –
      The survivor benefit IS your late husband’s retirement benefit. So if you took it at age 60, you wouldn’t be able to make any changes later that would increase the benefit for you.

      An alternative would be to take your own retirement benefit early at age 62, and then at age 66 switch over to the survivor benefit. There’s no increase if you delay the survivor benefit past your own age 66.

      Hope this helps –

      1. Christina says:

        Hello, my daughters father passed in December 2019 shes 10 he never sighned the birth certifacate because he had lost his id when i had her whats will they need for proof dna from his mom or siblings ? Im really worried

        1. jblankenship says:

          This is a question for SSA. It may be best to visit a local office rather than calling the 800 number.

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