Planning For Your Survivors
As you plan for the future, you'll want to think about what your family would need if you should die now. Social Security can help your family if you have earned enough Social Security credits through your work.
You can earn up to four credits each year. In 2020, for example, you earn one credit for each $1,410 of wages or self-employment income. When you have earned $5,640, you have earned your four credits for the year.
The number of credits needed to provide benefits for your survivors depends on your age when you die. No one needs more than 40 credits (10 years of work) to be eligible for any Social Security benefit. But, the younger a person is, the fewer credits they must have for family members to receive survivors benefits.
Benefits can be paid to your children and your spouse who is caring for the children even if you don't have the required number of credits. They can get benefits if you have credit for one and one-half years of work (6 credits) in the three years just before your death.
For Your Widow Or Widower
There are about four million widows and widowers receiving monthly Social Security benefits based on their deceased spouse's earnings record. And, for many of those survivors, particularly aged women, those benefits are keeping them out of poverty.
Widows and widowers can receive:
- reduced benefits as early as age 60 or full benefits at full retirement age or older.
- benefits as early as age 50 if they're disabled AND their disability started before or within seven years of your death.
- benefits at any age, if they have not remarried, and if they take care of your child who is under age 16 or disabled and receives benefits on your record.
If applying for disability benefits on a deceased worker’s record, they can speed up the application process if they complete an Adult Disability Report and have it available at the time of their appointment.
We use the same definition of disability for widows and widowers as we do for workers.
For Your Surviving Divorced Spouse
If you have a surviving divorced spouse, they could get the same benefits as your widow or widower provided that your marriage lasted 10 years or more.
Benefits paid to a surviving divorced spouse won't affect the benefit amounts your other survivors will receive based on your earnings record.
If your former spouse is caring for your child who is under age 16 or disabled and gets benefits on your record, they will not have to meet the length-of-marriage rule. The child must be your natural or legally adopted child.
For Your Children
Your unmarried children who are under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) can be eligible to receive Social Security benefits when you die.
And your child can get benefits at any age if they were disabled before age 22 and remain disabled.
Besides your natural children, your stepchildren, grandchildren, step grandchildren or adopted children may receive benefits under certain circumstances. For further information, view our publication.
For Your Parents
You must have been providing at least half of your parent’s support and your parent must not be eligible to receive a retirement benefit that is higher than the benefit we could pay on your record. Generally, your parent also must not have married after your death; however, there are some exceptions.
In addition to your natural parent, your stepparent or adoptive parent may receive benefits if they became your parent before you were age 16.
How Much Would Your Survivors Receive
How much your family could receive in benefits depends on your average lifetime earnings. The higher your earnings were, the higher their benefits would be. We calculate a basic amount as if you had reached full retirement age at the time you die.
These are examples of monthly benefit payments:
- Widow or widower, full retirement age or older—100 percent of your benefit amount;
- Widow or widower, age 60 to full retirement age—71½ to 99 percent of your basic amount;
- Disabled widow or widower, age 50 through 59—71½ percent;
- Widow or widower, any age, caring for a child under age 16—75 percent;
- A child under age 18 (19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or disabled—75 percent; and
- Your dependent parent(s), age 62 or older:
- One surviving parent—82½ percent.
- Two surviving parents—75 percent to each parent.
Percentages for a surviving divorced spouse would be the same as above.
There may also be a special lump-sum death payment.
There's a limit to the amount that family members can receive each month. The limit varies, but it is generally equal to between 150 and 180 percent of the basic benefit rate.
If the sum of the benefits payable to family members is greater than this limit, the benefits will be reduced proportionately. (Any benefits paid to a surviving divorced spouse based on disability or age won't count toward this maximum amount.)
There are limits on how much survivors may earn while they receive benefits.
Benefits for a widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse may be affected by several additional factors:
If they remarry
If your widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse remarries before they reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), they cannot receive benefits as a surviving spouse while they're married.
If your widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse remarries after they reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), they will continue to qualify for benefits on your Social Security record.
However, if their current spouse is a Social Security beneficiary, they may want to apply for spouse's benefits on their record. If that amount is more than the widow's or widower's benefit on your record, they will receive a combination of benefits that equals the higher amount.
If they're eligible for retirement benefits on their own record
If your widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse receives benefits on your record, they can switch to their own retirement benefit as early as age 62. This assumes they're eligible for retirement benefits and their retirement rate is higher than their rate as a widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse.
In many cases, a widow or widower can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then, at full retirement age, switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate.
If they will also receive a pension based on work not covered by Social Security
If your widow, widower, or surviving divorced spouse will also receive a pension based on work not covered by Social Security, such as government or foreign work, their Social Security benefits as a survivor may be affected.