How to File for Social Security Death Benefits


When a spouse dies, the process of managing the resulting financial matters might seem like more than you can handle. But at least when it comes to filing for Social Security death benefits, millions have done it before you, and the process is easy. There are two types of benefits you can receive: a monthly benefit called survivors benefits, and a one-time special lump-sum death payment.

Who is eligible for Social Security survivors benefits?

You may qualify for monthly benefits if you meet any of these criteria:

  • A widow or widower who is 60 years or older
  • A widow or widower who is at least 50 years old and has a disability
  • A widow or widower of any age who has not remarried and is taking care of the late spouse’s child who is under 16 or disabled and receiving benefits through the late spouse.
  • A child who is under 18, or under 19 but still in high school
  • A child who is 18 or older with a disability
  • In certain other circumstances, divorced spouses, stepchildren, grandchildren, and financially dependent parents are eligible for survival benefits as well.

How much you’ll receive

The average survivor payment for widows, widowers, and parents age 60 and older is $1,307 a month, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance. Your survivor benefit depends in part on how much your spouse earned: The higher the salary, the higher the benefit.

Survivor benefits also depend on your age. If you have reached full retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1945-1956, gradually increasing to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later), you’re eligible for 100 percent of your late spouse’s benefit amount. If you’re between age 60 and full retirement age, you’re eligible for most (71.5 to 99 percent) of the amount. If you’re caring for a child under age 16, regardless of your age, you’re eligible for 75 percent of your late spouse’s benefit amount.

You can opt to postpone survivor benefits until full retirement age, to receive the maximum amount. Note that retirement age for survivor benefits is slightly different than retirement age for your own retirement benefit.

However, there are several limits to be aware of. If you’re still working, there’s a limit on how much you can earn while receiving benefits. There’s also a monthly maximum amount that any one family can receive based on one worker’s earnings record. The amount you receive in survivor benefits could also be affected if you remarry before age 60 or if you receive a pension for government work.

Special lump-sum death payment

Those who lose a spouse or parent may be eligible to receive a one-time payment of $255 from Social Security, in addition to other benefits. This lump sum usually goes to a spouse who was living with the person who died, but in some cases, it can also be paid to the spouse even if they were separated. If there is no surviving spouse, a child can receive the lump sum in some cases. If you’re not already receiving Social Security benefits, you have two years to apply for this lump sum.

How to apply

1. Make sure the Social Security Administration (SSA) is notified of your spouse’s death. The funeral home will usually do this. Just be sure the funeral home has your loved one’s Social Security number. To report the death yourself, call the SSA at (800) 772-1213.  

2. Determine which of these three categories you fall in:

  • If you are already receiving Social Security benefits through your spouse, you usually don’t need to file for survivor’s benefits—your benefits will be automatically updated appropriately.
  • If you are already receiving Social Security benefits of your own, you should apply for survivor’s benefits in case they turn out to be higher than your current benefits. You can collect one or the other, but not both.
  • If you are not already receiving any Social Security, apply for survivor’s benefits.

3. Gather documents. The SSA has a list of documents you may need, as well as a list of questions you may be asked. If you can’t find all of the documents, the SSA can help you get them.

4. Apply for benefits by calling the SSA at (800) 772-1213 or visiting a Social Security office. You cannot do this step online. Have your checkbook or checking account statement with you to sign up for direct deposit.

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