Page Reviewed / Updated - Jun. 2018
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.
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 survivor 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 (50 if disabled).
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.
Widows, widowers, and divorced spouses are eligible for their former spouse's Social Security Benefits. However, as mentioned previously, for a surviving divorced spouse to be eligible, they must have been married to the deceased a minimum of 10 years. In addition, the surviving divorced spouse must not have remarried before the age of 60. For divorced surviving spouses who are disabled, they must not have remarried before the age of 50. This holds true even if one’s deceased former spouse had remarried.
Surviving spouses can receive survivors’ benefits at a reduced level at age 60 and full benefits at age 66 (if born between 1945 and 1956) or 67 (if born in 1962 or after). If disabled, they can begin receiving benefits at age 50.
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, rather than age 60.
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).
A veteran's discharge status has no impact on eligibility. Nor does their state of residence even if the individual resides abroad.
Benefits are made as cash payments directly to the individual. There are no restrictions on how payments can be spent. The benefit amount survivors receive is a percentage based on the basic Social Security benefit amount of the deceased. For instance, widows, widowers, and surviving divorced spouses may receive 100% of the deceased’s benefits if they are at full retirement age (between 66 and 67 years old). For those between 60 years old and full retirement age, the benefit percentage would be between 71.5% and 99%, and for disabled widows, widowers, and surviving divorced spouses between 50 and 59 years of age, the percentage amount would be 71.5%.
The average check is around $1,300 / month and the maximum is around $2,700 / month. However, as mentioned previously, if the survivor is already receiving their own benefits, they will only receive the higher of the two benefit amounts. In addition to the monthly benefit, there is also generally a one-time lump sum benefit paid to the survivor of approximately $255. For this payment, 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.
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. One can apply for Survivors’ benefits by calling 1-800-772-1213.