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Who gets surviving spouse Social Security benefits?

Social Security survivors benefits are a crucial form of financial support provided by the U.S. government to widows, widowers, and dependents of eligible workers. These benefits serve as a lifeline for families facing the loss of a loved one and can provide stability during difficult times. In this blog post, we will dive into the details of who can receive surviving spouse Social Security benefits and explore the eligibility criteria, calculation methods, application process, and other important considerations.

Eligibility for Surviving Spouse Social Security Benefits

Widow/Widower eligibility

To be eligible for surviving spouse Social Security benefits, an individual must meet specific criteria as a widow or widower. First and foremost, they must have been married to the deceased worker for at least nine months. However, this requirement is waived if the death was accidental or occurred while serving in the military. Additionally, the surviving spouse must be at least 60 years old (or 50 if they are disabled).

Example: Pam recently lost her husband, who was a long-time worker and contributed to Social Security. Pam is 55 years old and wondering if she qualifies for surviving spouse benefits. Unfortunately, she does not meet the minimum age requirement, so she would need to explore other avenues of financial support.

Dependent eligibility

In addition to widows and widowers, dependents of the deceased worker may also be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits. This includes children who are either minors or disabled and meet certain criteria.

Children are considered dependents if they are unmarried and under the age of 18, or under 19 and still attending school full-time (12th grade or below). Furthermore, disabled children may be eligible if their disability began before the age of 22 and they meet specific dependency requirements.

Example: Sarah is a single mother with two young children. Her husband passed away unexpectedly, leaving her as the sole provider. Fortunately, her children qualify as dependents and are eligible for survivors benefits, providing much-needed financial support during this challenging time.

Calculation of Surviving Spouse Social Security Benefits

Basis for benefit calculation

The amount of surviving spouse Social Security benefits received is based on several factors. Firstly, the deceased worker’s earnings record is taken into account. The average of the worker’s earnings over their lifetime, called the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA), is calculated. This amount forms the basis for determining the benefit amount for the surviving spouse and other eligible dependents.

Example: Tom was the primary breadwinner in his family and had a high average lifetime income. As a result, when he passed away, his widow Jane was able to receive a substantial surviving spouse benefit, ensuring her financial stability going forward.

Maximum benefit limits

There are maximum benefit limits that may affect the amount of surviving spouse Social Security benefits an individual can receive. These limits are influenced by various factors, including the age at which the surviving spouse begins collecting benefits.

Furthermore, if the surviving spouse continues to work and earn income, their benefits may be reduced based on an earnings test. It is important to understand these limits and potential reductions to plan accordingly.

Example: Mark, a surviving spouse, decided to return to work after a year of collecting Social Security benefits. However, he soon realized that his earnings triggered a reduction in his benefits. Being aware of this possibility, Mark adjusted his work hours to minimize the impact on his Social Security income.

Impact of other benefits on Social Security survivors benefits

It is important to consider how other forms of income and benefits may affect the amount of Social Security survivors benefits. For instance, if the surviving spouse is also entitled to a pension from a public sector job, their Social Security benefits might be subject to an offset. Understanding these coordination rules is crucial to effectively plan for the future.

Additionally, individuals who have worked in jobs not covered by Social Security, such as certain government positions, may be subject to different rules and potential reductions in benefits. It is essential to research specific provisions that apply to their situation.

Example: Mary worked as a teacher for many years, contributing to a state pension plan. When her husband passed away, she realized that her survivor benefits would be reduced due to her pension. She sought professional advice to understand the impact on her overall financial picture and make informed decisions.

Application Process for Surviving Spouse Social Security Benefits

How to apply for benefits

Applying for surviving spouse Social Security benefits can be done through an online application or by visiting your local Social Security Administration (SSA) office. The online process offers convenience and allows applicants to submit necessary documentation electronically. Alternatively, visiting an SSA office provides the opportunity to receive personalized assistance from a representative.

Processing time and waiting period

After submitting an application, there is typically a waiting period before benefits are approved and begin to be paid out. The length of this period can vary, but it is advisable to anticipate some delay in receiving benefits. However, in certain situations, retroactive benefits and back pay provisions may apply, ensuring that the individual receives the benefits they are entitled to for the period between the application date and the approval date.

Example: John applied for surviving spouse benefits after the passing of his wife. He was relieved to receive a lump sum payment covering the months between his application and the approval date, providing some financial relief during the waiting period.

Additional Considerations and Resources

Effect of remarriage on benefits

Remarriage can affect eligibility for surviving spouse Social Security benefits. Typically, if the surviving spouse remarries before the age of 60 (or 50 if disabled), they are no longer eligible for benefits. However, if the remarriage occurs after those ages, the benefits may still be retained.

Survivor benefits for divorced spouses

Divorced spouses may also be eligible for surviving spouse Social Security benefits under specific circumstances. The requirements include being married to the deceased worker for at least ten years, being at least 60 years old (or 50 if disabled), and not currently married.

Social Security Administration resources and contact information

The Social Security Administration offers a wealth of resources and information on its website, including eligibility calculators, benefit estimators, and application guidance. Individuals can also contact the SSA directly for further assistance and clarification of their specific situation.


Social Security survivors benefits provide crucial support to widows, widowers, and dependents who have lost a loved one. Understanding who is eligible for these benefits and how to apply is essential for accessing the financial stability and assistance they offer. By familiarizing themselves with the criteria, calculation methods, application process, and additional considerations, individuals can navigate this complex system with greater confidence and optimize their financial well-being during difficult times.


  1. If You Are the Survivor
  2. Survivors Benefits
  3. Planning for Your Survivors
  4. How does Social Security work when a spouse dies?
  5. How Social Security Survivor Benefits Work