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Savvy Senior: How does Social Security work when a spouse or ex-spouse dies?
Savvy Senior

Savvy Senior: How does Social Security work when a spouse or ex-spouse dies?

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QUESTION: Who qualifies for Social Security survivor benefits? My ex-husband died last year, so I would like to find out if my 17-year-old daughter and I are eligible for anything?

ANSWER: If your ex-husband worked and paid Social Security taxes and you and/or your daughter meet the eligibility requirements, you may very well be eligible for survivor benefits, but you should act quickly because benefits are generally retroactive only up to six months. Here’s what you should know.

Under Social Security law, when a person who has worked and paid Social Security taxes dies, certain members of that person’s family may be eligible for survivor benefits, including spouses, former spouses and dependents. Here’s a breakdown of who qualifies.

Widow(er)s and divorced widow(er)s: Surviving spouses that were married at least nine months are eligible to collect a monthly survivor benefit as early as age 60 (50 if disabled). Divorced surviving spouses are also eligible at this same age, if you were married at least 10 years and did not remarry before age 60 (50 if disabled), unless the marriage ends.

How much you’ll receive will depend on how much money (earnings that were subject to Social Security taxes) your spouse or ex-spouse made over their lifetime and the age in which you apply for survivor benefits.

If you wait until your full retirement age (which is 66 for people born between 1945-1954 and will gradually increase to age 67 for people born in 1960 or later), you’ll receive 100% of your deceased spouses or ex-spouses benefit amount. But if you apply between age 60 and your full retirement age, your benefit will be somewhere between 71.5% to 99% of their benefit.

There is, however, one exception. Surviving spouses and ex-spouses that are caring for a child (or children) of the deceased worker, and they are under age 16 or disabled, are eligible to receive 75% of the worker’s benefit amount at any age.

Unmarried children: Surviving unmarried children under age 18, or up to age 19 if they’re still attending high school, are eligible for survivor benefits, too. Benefits can also be paid to children at any age if they were disabled before age 22 and remain disabled. Both biological and adoptive children are eligible, as well as kids born out of wedlock. Dependent stepchildren and grandchildren may also qualify. Children’s benefits are 75% of the worker’s benefit.

You should also know that in addition to survivor benefits, a surviving spouse or child may be eligible to receive a special lump-sum death payment of $255.

Dependent parents: Benefits can also be paid to dependent parents who are age 62 and older. For parents to qualify as dependents, the deceased worker would have had to provide at least one-half of the parent’s financial support.

But Social Security has limits on how much a family can receive in monthly survivors benefits — usually 150% to 180% of the worker’s benefit.


Social Security also provides surviving spouses and ex-spouses some nice strategies that can help boost your benefits. For example, if you’ve worked, you could take a reduced survivor benefit at age 60 and switch to your own retirement benefit based on your earnings history — between 62 and 70 — if it offers a higher payment.

Or, if you’re already receiving retirement benefits on your work record, you could switch to survivors benefits if it offers a higher payment. You cannot, however, receive both benefits.

You also need to know that if you collect a survivor benefit while working, and are under full retirement age, your benefits may be reduced depending on your earnings — see

For more information on survivor benefits, visit

Jim Miller is editor of the Savvy Senior. Send your senior questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit


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