Rules for Survivor Benefits

After the death of a loved one, survivor benefits can help struggling families meet their financial needs.

After the death of a loved one, survivor benefits can help struggling families meet their financial needs.

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by Contributing Writer

There are only two things you can count on in life: death and taxes. While no one wants to think about death, it’s nice to know your loved ones can receive financial help in the form of survivor benefits, monthly payouts based on what you paid into Social Security, when you die. As of publication, the Social Security Administration provides assistance to more than five million surviving spouses and children. Your family must meet specific guidelines to receive survivor benefits.


You earn credits for every year you work and pay Social Security taxes. As of 2013, you earn one credit for every $1,160 you earn in wages or self-employment income, for a total of four credits if you earn $4,640. Under the rules, you need up to a maximum of 40 credits, or the equivalent of 10 years of employment, for your family to receive survivor benefits after you die. This varies, however, based on your age at death; the younger you are, the fewer credits you need. If your surviving spouse is raising children, your family qualifies for benefits if you earned the equivalent of 1 1/2 years of credit in the three years prior to your death.

Spousal Benefits

The Social Security Administration bases the maximum survivor benefit amount your spouse receives on a percentage of your lifetime earnings and the benefit amount you would have received. For example, if your spouse is age 65 or older, she receives 100 percent of your benefit amount; if she is age 60 to 64, she receive 71 1/2 to 99 percent of your benefit amount. There are exceptions. If your spouse is ages 50 to 59 and disabled, she receives 71 1/2 percent of your benefit amount; if she is caring for a child age 16 or younger, she receives 75 percent of your benefit amount. Factors that impact the benefits your spouse receives include remarriage, receiving retirement benefits based on her own individual earnings record or drawing a pension.

Ex-Spouse Benefits

Your ex-spouse receives the same survivor benefits as your spouse if you met the length-of-marriage rule, which simply says you had to have been married for 10 years or longer. The exception to this rule is if your ex is caring for your natural or legally adopted child who is age 16 or younger or disabled and receiving benefits based on your earnings record. Your ex must meet the same eligibility requirements as your spouse and those benefits will not impact your spouse’s benefit amount. If your ex turns 60, or 50 if disabled, and remarries, she remains eligible to receive benefits.

Child Benefits

Your children are eligible to receive survivor benefits if they are age 18 or younger or disabled and unmarried at the time of your death. If your child is attending elementary or secondary school full time, he is eligible to receive benefits up to age 19 and will receive 75 percent of your benefit amount. This applies to your adopted children, grandchildren, step-children and step-grandchildren. The age restrictions do not apply if your child was disabled before reaching age 22 and was disabled when you died.

Earnings Limitations

Your survivors can work while receiving survivor benefits; however, their income will reduce their benefit amount while at the same time increasing the benefit amount they will receive at retirement. The Social Security Administration deducts $1 from benefit payments for every $2 a person earns over the annual earnings limit, which is $15,120 as of publication, prior to a person's retirement year. Once a person retires, the Social Security Administration recalculates her benefit amount and omits the months she received reduced or withheld benefits. When that person reaches her retirement year, the Social Security Administration deducts $1 from her benefit payments for every $3 she earns over the current $40,080 earnings limit as of publication but only counts her earnings prior to her retirement month. There are no limitations placed on earned income once a person retires.

About the Author

R. Lynne has been writing professionally since 1980. Her work has appeared in "Springfield Business Journal," "The Illinois Times," "The State Journal-Register" and "The Hillsboro Journal." She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in anthropology from Illinois State University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in legal studies from Sangamon State University. She writes about business, real estate and health and wellness topics.

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