Understanding Social Security Survivor Benefits

by Emily Guy Birken · 6 comments

Even though we generally think of Social Security as a retirement program, there are also other benefits available. In particular, Social Security can assist the surviving family members of a deceased worker who paid into the program.

Like many aspects of Social Security, however, the rules for survivor benefits are a little complicated. Here’s what you need to know about Social Security survivor benefits:


The rules governing who may receive survivor benefits are very specific. In general, a surviving spouse will receive benefits from the program if they’re caring for the deceased spouse’s children who are under the age of 16, if they’re over the age of 60, or if they’re disabled and at least 50 years of age.

Surviving dependent children are eligible for benefits if they’re under the age of 18, or under 19 and still in high school.

Surviving parents of the deceased may also receive benefits. In that case, the parent(s) must be at least 62 years old, and receiving at least half of their financial support from the deceased.

Size of Benefits

How much survivors are eligible to receive depends upon the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) of their Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration defines PIA as “the benefit a person would receive if he/she elects to begin receiving retirement benefits at his/her normal retirement age.” Basically, survivor benefits are determined by percentages of the benefits the worker would have (or did) receive as of retirement.

Widows and widowers who have reached full retirement age will receive 100% of the deceased’s PIA. However, in that case, their own Social Security benefit will disappear. That is, if the deceased’s retirement benefit was higher than that of the surviving spouse, the survivor will receive the entire higher benefit, but will no longer receive the lower one.

If, on the other hand, the spouse who dies has the lower retirement benefit, the survivor will keep receiving the higher benefit, but the lower one will disappear. Basically, the surviving spouse will keep the higher benefit, but not both.

In the case of surviving spouses under the age of retirement who are caring for underage children, the benefit is 75% of PIA. Underage dependent children also receive 75%. In each of those cases, the benefits end once the children reach age 16 (in the first case) and 18 (in the latter).

A single dependent parent is eligible for 82.5% of their deceased child’s PIA. If that adult child was financially supporting both parents, then each parent is eligible for 75% of PIA — or 150% total.

Maximum Family Amount

The Social Security Administration limits the amount of benefits each family can receive per month. That limit is determined by several variables, but the basic rule of thumb is that families can’t receive more than about 150% to 180% of PIA per month.

If the total of a family’s survivor benefits is more than the maximum limit, then each individual’s benefits will be reduced proportionately.

The Bottom Line

Knowing what survivor benefits will be available to your family is an important part of estate planning. Make sure you know what your family will be able to count on from Social Security in the event of your death.

Have you accounted for survivor Social Security survivor benefits in your estate planning?

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  • Tracy Hernandez says:

    My husband worked from the age of 18 years old to the age 36 with his goverment issued social security card/no. He was arrested at age 18 while a resident and was suppose to be a self deportation. He stayed in the USA working the same social security number til the very day he died. Am I eligible for any survivors benefits?

  • Carmen says:

    My son’s father died on 2012 and social security split the amount of money equally between the children. But even though we were going to get married that June. His ex-wife is receiving spousal benefits.
    Am I. Not eligible on some information I am but then information I’m not. I just don’t see why I’m not.thank you in ad va. Nxen

  • Joel Alston says:

    My Name is Joel Alston me and my wife obtain custody of my niece back in July of 2008, just recently lost custody her to my older brother, on September 27,2015 due to my wife verbally abusing her, to my stupidity I let my wife handle, the social security benefits & child support she did not save any kind of money at all can my brother sue me for my wife not saving and money at all as of right now I am broke due to her negligent.

  • marci357 says:

    Ex-spouses may also be eligible to collect at age 60 IF they are still single at age 60 and IF they were married more than 10 years to the deceased. The amount received from their deceased ex-spouse will depend upon how many other people are drawing on the ex-spouse’s SS account. If no one else is drawing off of it, ie, no other spouses or ex-spouses and no children etc, then the living ex-spouse is entitled to the full benefit of the deceased spouse’s account, at age 60.

    This is what I will be drawing off of in another year 🙂 The rules are complicated, so do talk to the SS office well in advance of the time so you have the facts straight. The most important qualifier is that you are single at age 60 when you want to start drawing.

    • Alley K says:

      Similar situation here. Divorced after 20 years of marriage, ex-hubby passed away at 59YO, no kids, had only recently remarried. I turn 60 in ~1.5 years and the only thing I’m wondering is how much I might collect seeing as though my ex only worked from age 18 – 40 and collected SSDI afterward due to health issues resulting from a brain hemorrhage. Guess that’s a question for my local SS office… who are now on my to-do list to call.

  • Anne says:

    This is very enlightening and I have to share it with my cousin. Her husband is a disabled veteran and I think they believe she would be entitled to more social security if he died but she would not. A life insurance policy might be the best idea to ensure she is taken care of.

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