Social Security Survivors' Benefits & Paying for Long Term Care

Page Reviewed / Updated - May 2017

Definition

Survivors' benefits are an extension of the Social Security program that pays out a portion, or all of the benefits, of a deceased individual to their surviving spouse or dependent children. If a surviving spouse is already receiving Social Security benefits on their own, the amount they receive may increase depending on the amount of one’s own Social Security benefits and the benefits of the deceased spouse. 

 

Program Details

Survivor's benefits might be as much as $1,200 - $2,600 / month. 

In the context of senior care, survivors' benefits are sometimes overlooked as a potential resource or source of funds to help pay for assisted living or home care. When two married people are both receiving Social Security and one spouse dies, the surviving spouse will receive the higher of the Social Security benefit amounts, not both, as one may think. Many individuals are unaware that they are also eligible to receive benefits even if they are divorced from the deceased spouse, provided they were married for at least 10 years and did not re-marry before the age of 60.

Follows is an example of how this might be used to pay for long-term care. A divorced woman is moving into an assisted living community and needs additional resources to help pay. Her ex-husband has passed away several years back. Despite the divorce, she remains eligible for her former husband's Social Security benefits. If his Social Security benefits are higher, she can apply for the higher amount to help offset the cost of assisted living.

As seniors receive survivors’ benefits checks directly from the government, they or their loved ones are free to apply those dollars towards the cost of home care, adult day care, or residential care.

 What's in a Name?  Survivors' Benefits are referred to using many different terms.  Included among these are: Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, OASDI, Widows Benefits, Death Benefits and Social Security Life Insurance.

Qualifying / Eligibility for Survivors' Benefits

Marital / Family

Widows, widowers, and divorced spouses are eligible for their former spouse's Social Security Benefits if they were married 10 years and did not re-marry before the age of 60. This holds true even if your deceased former spouse had remarried.

Age

Surviving spouses can receive this benefit at a reduced level at age 60 and full benefits at age 66 (if born between 1945 and 1946) or 67 (if born after 1962). If disabled, they can begin receiving benefits at age 50.

Disabilities / Health

There are no disability or health requirements to qualify for survivor's benefits, however if the surviving spouse is disabled, benefits can begin at age 50.

Financial Status

Survivors’ benefits are not restricted based on an individual's net worth or their annual earnings, provided they are at full retirement age (66-67 years old). However, as mentioned previously, if they are receiving their own Social Security benefits, they are only eligible for their deceased spouse’s benefits if their benefit amount is higher than their own. (The widow or widower will only receive the higher of the two benefit amounts).

Other Factors Not Impacting Eligibility

Veterans discharge status has no impact on eligibility.  Nor does their state of residence even if the individual resides abroad.

 

Benefits Details and Limits

Benefits are made as cash payments directly to the individual. There are no restrictions on how payments can be spent. As survivors’ benefits are a re-direction of the deceased's benefits, the same limits apply. The average check is around $1,200 / month and the maximum is around $2,600 / month. However, if the survivor is already receiving their own benefits, they will only receive the higher of the two benefit amounts. There is also generally a one-time lump sum benefit paid to the survivor of approximately $255, which age of the beneficiary is not taken into consideration.

To begin receiving benefits, it can take 1 - 2 months. Timing depends on whether the applicant is already receiving their own benefits when applying for their deceased spouse's benefits. Those who are receiving benefits currently typically experience faster processing.

There are no costs to receive Social Security survivors' benefits.

 

How to Apply

The SSA provides a questionnaire, which takes approximately 5 minutes to complete and screens for a variety of benefits. One can take the federal government's benefits eligibility test here.