When a spouse passes away, it can be a very difficult time emotionally and financially for the surviving spouse. One question that often comes up is whether the surviving spouse is eligible to collect any of the deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits. The answer depends on several factors, most importantly the length of the marriage.
The Social Security Marriage Requirement
In order to collect Social Security benefits based on a deceased spouse’s earnings record, the surviving spouse must have been married to the deceased spouse for at least 9 months prior to their death. This is sometimes referred to as the “Social Security marriage requirement.”
If the couple was married for less than 9 months before the death, the surviving spouse is not eligible for survivors benefits on that earnings record. However, they may qualify for other Social Security benefits, such as benefits based on their own earnings record.
Why 9 Months?
The 9-month Social Security marriage requirement is designed to prevent people from entering into “sham” marriages solely to gain survivor’s benefits. Requiring the marriage to last a minimum of 9 months helps ensure the marriage was entered in good faith.
Congress established the 9-month requirement as part of the Social Security Amendments of 1965. Prior to that, there was no minimum marriage duration requirement.
Exceptions to the 9-Month Requirement
While 9 months is the standard Social Security marriage requirement, there are some exceptions. The 9-month requirement is waived if:
- The deceased spouse’s death was accidental
- The couple had a child together (biological child, adopted child, or stepchild)
- The couple was married before the deceased spouse applied for retirement benefits and was already receiving them
In these situations, the length of the marriage does not matter. As long as they were legally married at the time of the worker’s death, the surviving spouse can qualify for Social Security survivor’s benefits.
When Survivor’s Benefits Can Begin
If the 9-month marriage requirement is met, when can the surviving spouse begin collecting benefits based on the deceased spouse’s earnings record? It depends on the surviving spouse’s age.
Surviving Spouse Age 60 or Older
For a surviving spouse age 60 or older, Social Security survivor’s benefits can begin as early as the month after the worker’s death. Survivor’s benefits are available beginning at age 60 at a reduced rate, just like retirement benefits are reduced if claimed early.
Surviving Spouse Under Age 60
If the surviving spouse is under age 60, benefits can begin at age 60 or at any age if the surviving spouse is disabled and meets the SSA definition of disability. The surviving spouse can also collect benefits at any age if caring for the deceased worker’s child who is under age 16 or disabled.
Surviving Spouse with Child In Care
A surviving spouse can receive benefits at any age if they are caring for the deceased worker’s child who is under age 16 or disabled. This is sometimes referred to as “mother’s and father’s benefits.” As long as the surviving spouse has the deceased worker’s child in care, they can collect up to 75% of the worker’s basic Social Security benefit amount.
Once the child reaches age 16, the survivor’s benefit amount may be reduced but can continue until other milestones are reached, such as when the child turns 18 or 19 if still enrolled in high school full time.
Amount of Survivor’s Benefits
The amount of Social Security survivors benefits is based on the deceased spouse’s earnings and when the survivor begins collecting benefits. The maximum family benefit is generally 150 to 180 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit amount.
Maximum Family Benefit
There is a maximum family benefit that can be paid based on one earnings record. It is typically 150 to 180 percent of the deceased worker’s basic benefit amount. If the total survivors benefits exceed this limit, the amounts are reduced proportionately until the total equals the maximum.
For example, if the worker’s benefit amount was $2,000 and the family maximum is $3,000, if the totals payable to eligible survivors exceed $3,000 then the benefit amounts would each be reduced proportionately to bring the total to $3,000.
Survivor’s Benefit Amount Factors
The exact Social Security survivor’s benefit amount depends on several factors:
- Deceased worker’s benefit amount – The higher the benefit amount, the higher survivors benefits will be subject to the family maximum.
- Survivor’s age when claiming – Early claiming results in a reduced benefit amount.
- Other benefits paid – The maximum family benefit may cause reductions.
- Cost-of-living adjustments – Annual COLAs will increase the monthly benefit amounts.
Survivor’s Benefit Calculation Examples
Here are some examples to illustrate potential survivors benefit amounts:
|Deceased Worker Benefit||Survivor’s Age When Claiming||Survivor’s Monthly Benefit|
|$1,500||Age 67||$1,350 (90% of $1,500)|
|$2,000||Age 63||$1,500 (75% of $2,000)|
|$2,500||Age 70||$2,500 (100% of $2,500)|
Collecting Survivor’s Benefits and Retirement Benefits
In some cases, a surviving spouse may be eligible for both Social Security retirement benefits based on their own earnings record and survivor’s benefits based on the deceased spouse’s earnings. This is known as “dually entitled.”
When dually entitled, the surviving spouse effectively receives the higher of the two benefits, not both. The payment is constructed so that the survivor gets their own retirement benefit plus the difference between that amount and the higher survivor’s benefit, if applicable.
Example of Dual Entitlement
For example, if the survivor’s retirement benefit is $1,000 per month but the survivor’s benefit would be $1,200, as the dually entitled beneficiary they would receive their own $1,000 retirement benefit plus $200 from the survivor’s benefit, for a total $1,200.
Remarriage and Survivor’s Benefits
If a surviving spouse remarries before age 60, they generally cannot collect Social Security survivors benefits. But if the subsequent marriage ends, they could become eligible again for survivors benefits on the prior spouse’s record.
At age 60 or older, remarriage does not prevent eligibility for survivor’s benefits. The surviving spouse can continue receiving survivors benefits. The exception is if the new spouse is a Social Security beneficiary – then the survivor’s benefit amount may be impacted under dual entitlement rules.
Summary of Key Rules
Here is a quick summary of some key rules around Social Security survivor’s benefits for a surviving spouse:
- Must have been married 9 months unless an exception applies
- Can collect survivors benefits as early as age 60
- Amount depends on deceased worker’s benefit and age when claiming
- Family maximum may reduce individual survivor benefits
- Can collect both own retirement benefits and survivor benefits
- Remarriage before age 60 stops eligibility unless marriage ends
Applying for Survivor’s Benefits
To apply for Social Security survivors benefits, the surviving spouse will need to contact the Social Security Administration and provide various documents. This typically includes:
- The deceased worker’s Social Security number
- Original or certified copy of the marriage certificate
- Certified copy of the death certificate
- Birth certificates of dependent children
- The surviving spouse’s Social Security number and proof of age
- Copy of W-2 forms or federal tax return from prior year
The SSA needs proof that the marriage meets the 9-month requirement unless an exception applies. Documents that may help prove date of marriage include tax returns, life insurance policies, and mortgages or leases showing joint ownership.
The application can be initiated by phone, in person at a local SSA office, or online in some cases. The SSA encourages making an appointment rather than walking into a local office. Initial application and documentation are required before benefits payments can begin.
Other Survivor’s Benefits
In addition to spousal survivor’s benefits, other family members may be eligible for Social Security benefits based on the deceased worker’s earnings record. This includes:
- Widowed mothers and fathers – Caring for the deceased’s child under age 16
- Children – Unmarried children under age 18
- Dependent parents – Age 62+ and depended on deceased for at least half their support
These survivor’s benefits have their own eligibility requirements and amounts subject to the maximum family benefit limit. Be sure to check with the Social Security Administration about eligibility for all categories of survivor’s benefits.
Planning for Survivor’s Benefits
The best time to learn about Social Security survivor’s benefits is when both spouses are still living. Discussing and planning for survivor’s benefit needs can help ensure the surviving spouse receives the maximum benefits they are entitled to.
Key topics for couples to discuss include:
- At what age each spouse will claim benefits
- How much in benefits each spouse may receive
- How survivor’s benefits would impact total income for the surviving spouse
- How pension income or other assets may coordinate with Social Security
- Whether life insurance is needed to supplement survivor’s benefits
Seeking professional assistance from a financial advisor or Social Security expert can help couples make optimized Social Security claiming decisions. Planning ahead and understanding survivor’s benefit rules is the key to ensuring the best possible financial outcome.
Social Security survivor’s benefits can provide vital income for a surviving spouse after their partner passes away. To qualify, the couple generally must have been married for at least 9 months prior to the death unless an exception applies. The surviving spouse can claim reduced survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 or full benefits at their survivor full retirement age. Remarriage before age 60 terminates eligibility for survivor’s benefits unless the marriage ends. Coordinating survivor’s benefits with the surviving spouse’s own Social Security retirement benefits or pensions takes some analysis but can help maximize total income.