Next Steps for a Spouse or Survivor: Navigating Social Security Benefits

Losing a spouse is emotionally challenging, and during this difficult time understanding Social Security benefits becomes crucial. As a widow or survivor, you may be eligible for financial support based on your late spouse or parent’s work history. A brief overview of some of the terms and determination definitions will be covered below, but a great starting place is provided by the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Benefits Guide, publication No. 05-10084.

The first step in this process is generally evaluating your eligibility. To qualify for survivor benefits, a deceased spouse must have worked long enough to earn necessary work credits. Work credits can be earned through wages or self-employment income. The number of credits needed for survivors’ benefits depends on the worker’s age at the time of death. No more than 40 credits (equivalent to 10 years of work) is needed to be eligible for any Social Security benefit.

Once eligibility has been determined, if you are a qualifying widow or widower, you can receive benefits based on your late spouse’s earnings record. The amount of the benefits depends on factors such as your age, the deceased spouse’s work history, and whether you have dependent children.

A surviving spouse can collect 100% of a late spouse’s benefit if the survivor has reached full retirement age, but the amount will be lower if the deceased spouse claims benefits before reaching full retirement age. Full retirement age for survivor benefits differs from that for retirement and spousal benefits; it is 66 and 2 months for people born in 1957, 66 and 4 months for those born in 1958, and will gradually increase to 67 over the next several years. Even if you are divorced, you may qualify for survivor benefits if you were married to the deceased for at least ten years. These benefits are generally available to surviving ex-spouses who have not remarried, however, there is no effect on eligibility for survivor benefits if you remarry at or past 60 (50 if disabled).

The benefit amount is calculated based on the deceased spouse’s Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), and there is also a small, one-time payment of $255. For the special one-time payment, you must apply within two years of the date of death, and it is generally automatically paid to the surviving spouse who was living in the same household as the worker when they died. For the Primary Insurance Amount, there are a few different factors that may impact this figure, namely that if you, as the surviving spouse, are at full retirement age (FRA), you can receive 100% of the PIA, but if you claim benefits before FRA, the amount is reduced.

Children under age 18 (or up to age 19 if still in high school) are eligible for survivor benefits. Disabled children may qualify regardless of age if their disability began before age 22. Each eligible child can receive up to 75% of the deceased parent’s PIA. The total family benefit amount is subject to a maximum limit (typically around 150% to 180% of the PIA).

Additionally, in the case of a widow or widower being disabled, you may qualify for benefits as early as age 50. Under this qualification, your disability must have started within seven years of your spouse’s death (known as the “prescribed period”). Disabled widows or widowers between 50 and full retirement age (FRA) can receive 71.5% to 99% of the deceased spouse’s benefit. Age aside, if you are a disabled spouse caring for a child under 16, or a child with a disability, you are allowed to collect 75% of your late spouse’s benefit regardless of age.

It Is important to know and understand the difference when choosing between Retirement and Survivor Benefits. The SSA recommends identifying your full retirement age (FRA), which varies based on birth year (e.g., 66 or 67 years-old). You can then choose to receive either your own retirement benefit or the survivor benefit, but not both simultaneously. It is advisable to discuss the options with a Social Security representative or financial advisor to make an informed decision.

Getting started on the application process may be daunting, as you are currently unable to claim widow or survivor benefits online. The best place to start is with a call to the  SSA at 1-800-772-1213 immediately upon a person’s death, and they will help you set a phone appointment to get the process in motion. In most cases, the funeral home will report the person’s death to the SSA, which is why it is a good idea to make sure to give the funeral home the deceased person’s Social Security number if you want them to make the report. A list of original documents you should have on hand is included on page five of the SSA Benefits Guide.

Navigating Social Security as a widow or survivor involves understanding complex rules and making informed choices. Remember that working with a knowledgeable financial advisor can positively impact your financial well-being. We always recommend seeking professional advice to make informed decisions and build a solid foundation for your future during this challenging time.

This article is dedicated to my beloved Aunt and cousin on the west coast, bravely building their next chapter after the tragic loss of my Uncle Ken Matejka earlier this year, who was greatly loved and will be deeply missed.

Presented by Nicolette Davicino, CFP®, EA