Social Security survivors insurance pays a life insurance-type benefit to your eligible family members or (ex-spouse) when you die.
Survivors benefits represent your Social Security benefits assigned to eligible persons. These eligible persons include your surviving spouse, dependent children, dependent parents, or ex-spouse.
Survivors benefits are paid from the Old Age Survivors and Disability (OASDI) fund. This is the fund for most of your payroll taxes.
In order for eligible family members or an ex-spouse to receive survivors benefits in your name, you must have earned enough Social Security credits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) refers to the accumulation of Social Security credits as your earnings record.
Surviving spouse. Your surviving spouse is eligible to receive reduced survivors benefits if age 60 or older. Survivors benefits paid to the surviving spouse are called widow(er) benefits. In order to receive full widow(er) benefits, the surviving spouse must be at least at full retirement age. (This age gradually increases from 65 to 67 for persons born in 1938 or later.) If disabled, the surviving spouse can begin receiving reduced widow(er) benefits as early as age 50.
A surviving spouse is also eligible to receive widow(er) benefits if he or she takes care of your child who is under age 16, or the child is disabled and is receiving disability benefits based on your earnings record.
Both your surviving spouse that cares for your children and the children themselves are eligible for survivors benefits if you earned enough credits for 1-1/2 years of work in the three-year period that preceded your death. (Since you can earn four credits a year, or 12 over a three-year period, this corresponds to six credits.)
Dependent children or parents. Your children that are under 18 and unmarried are eligible to receive survivors benefits. If your child is attending elementary or secondary school fulltime, he or she may receive survivors benefits until he or she reaches age 19. Other cases of eligibility include your child, if disabled before age 22 and still disabled. Also eligible are your parents, if age 62 or older and dependent on your income.
Ex-spouse. To be eligible, an ex-spouse must have been married to you for 10 years or more, unless he or she cares for your child that is under age 16 or the child receives disability benefits on your Social Security record. (In the latter two cases, the child must also be your ex-spouse's natural or legally adopted child.)
If your surviving spouse is age 65 or older, he or she generally receives 100% of your retirement benefit as survivors benefits. The amount decreases to between 71% and 94% if your surviving spouse is between ages 60 to 64. Your surviving spouse that cares for your child under age 16 is eligible to receive 75% of your retirement benefit. Your children may also be eligible to receive up to 75% of your benefit, according to the SSA.
However, the SSA limits the total amount of Social Security benefits that can be paid to all members of a household receiving benefits from your record. This amount is usually between 150% and 180% of your benefit. For example, if your monthly benefit was $1,000, the maximum amount of combined benefits paid to the household would be between $1,500 and $1,800.
Your surviving spouse may be eligible to receive a one-time death benefit of $255 when you die. While this amount is unlikely to pay all funeral expenses, it does mitigate them. If you're not living together at the time of death, the SSA will pay your spouse the benefit as long as he or she was eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on your earnings record in the month of your death.
If there is no surviving spouse, this benefit is payable to a dependent child who is eligible for Social Security benefits on your earnings record in the month of your death.
The amount of survivors benefits that is available to these family members is shown on your Social Security statement. To get an estimate of these survivors benefits, request a Social Security Statement at the SSA's Web site. If you prefer, you can also download a request form and mail it to the address on the form.
The above information is educational and should not be interpreted as financial advice. For advice that is specific to your circumstances, see the Web site of the Social Security Administration or call at (800) 772-1213.