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Social Security Survivor Benefits

The death of a family member can be extraordinarily difficult to process — both from an emotional and a social perspective — but when it comes to working family members, that loss can devastate the financial resources on which the family may rely.  For example, a child who is fundamentally reliant on their parent(s) for financial support may be left without proper recourse in the event that their parents die.

It’s worth noting that, in many cases, even if the deceased family member properly executed a Will and/or various other estate planning documents (i.e., a Trust), the monetary distribution to surviving family members may not be sufficient.  For example, a deceased father who worked a low-paying job may have less than $100,000 in total estate assets to divide between many different surviving family members.

Additional survivor benefits is often necessary in order to ensure that one’s surviving family members are adequately supported.  Fortunately, Social Security survivor benefits are there to help.

What are Social Security survivor benefits, and who is eligible to receive such benefits?  Let’s take a brief look at what it entails.

Earning Survivor Benefits

Survivor benefits can be larger than life insurance benefits, in some cases.  They are earned out automatically over time as a worker pays Social Security taxes.  Every year, the total survivor benefits total grows (depending on the amount of tax paid into Social Security).  The total value of survivor benefits corresponds directly to the average lifetime earnings of the deceased worker.  As such, those who earn more (over time) entitle their surviving family members to more benefits, too.

For example, if your spouse earned $1M in total lifetime earnings, you will be entitled to more survivor benefits than if your spouse had only earned $500k in total.

It’s important to understand that the deceased must work for a certain number of years for their surviving family members to be entitled to benefits.  The requisite “work-years” is higher for older workers, and lower for younger workers (with a cap of 10 working years, at maximum, for eligibility).

Who is Entitled to Benefits?

There are many rules governing which surviving family members are entitled to recover survivor benefits, the amount of survivor benefits they are entitled to, and when they are entitled to recover such benefits.

Consider the following eligible parties.

  • The surviving spouse of the deceased may recover full benefits if they are taking care of the child of the deceased (and that child is below the age of 16, or deemed disabled). If the surviving spouse is not taking care of a qualified child, then he or she may only recover full benefits at retirement age (defined as 66 or 67, depending on the year they were born).  In some cases, the surviving spouse can get access to reduced benefits sooner, and if the surviving spouse is suffering from a disability, then he or she can access full benefits much earlier.
  • Parents of the deceased who were also financially dependent on the deceased may also be entitled to survivor benefits, but they will have to show that the deceased worker paid for 50% of their support, at minimum.
  • All minor children who are unmarried are potentially entitled to benefits. Adult children may be entitled to benefits if they were disabled at an early age (e.g. before the age of 22) and continue to be disabled.
  • Depending on the facts of the case (such as prior consistent financial support and dependency), grandchildren, adopted children, and stepchildren may be entitled to survivor benefits.

If you are a surviving family member and you believe that you may be entitled to survivor benefits, you should notify the Social Security Administration of the death of your family member as soon as possible.  Thereafter, you may receive benefits based on the deceased family member’s record.  In such case, you will not have to apply for survivor benefits.  In all other cases, you will have to apply for survivor benefits.

Determining eligibility for survivor benefits and applying for benefits can be complicated, depending on the circumstances.  If you have any questions or concerns, you should consult with a qualified disability lawyer for further guidance.