Widow's Benefits: How Much Social Security Are You Entitled To?

When you lose a spouse, financial worries often compound the heartache. In some cases, Social Security survivor benefits can help widowed spouses fill part of the financial void.

Survivor benefits are Social Security benefits based on the work record of someone who died. Although they're mostly paid to surviving spouses, in some cases, surviving dependent children and even elderly parents can qualify. (Note that survivor benefits are sometimes called "widows' benefits." But people of any gender are eligible as long as they meet the other requirements.) Keep reading to learn about survivor benefits, including who qualifies and how much you can receive.

A person clasps their hands, looking worried.

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Who qualifies for survivor benefits?

If your spouse dies and had earned enough work credits to be covered by Social Security, you'll typically qualify for survivor benefits once you're 60 (or 50 if you're disabled). Regardless of age, you're eligible for up to 75% of their benefit if you're caring for your spouse's child who is 16 or younger or has a permanent disability. You may even qualify for survivor benefits if you were divorced at the time of their death, provided the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

If your spouse dies, they don't need to have been Social Security age for you to receive benefits. Social Security will calculate any benefits based on their primary insurance amount, which is the amount they would have been eligible for at full retirement age.

Other dependent family members can qualify for survivor benefits. A dependent child with a disability that began before age 22 or who's younger than 18 or, if they're still a full-time high school student, 19 can usually receive up to 75% of their parent's primary insurance amount. If the person who died provided at least 50% support to a parent 62 or older, their parent may qualify for 75% as well. Typically, though, there's a maximum family cap of 150% to 180% of the deceased person's primary insurance amount.

Surviving spouses who remarry before age 60 (50 if disabled) won't be eligible for survivor benefits. However, you could become eligible for your previous spouse's survivor benefits if your marriage ends.

How much can surviving spouses receive?

You can receive up to 100% of your late spouse's benefit if you wait until your full retirement age to start collecting. (Full retirement age is 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later.) Though you can collect as early as 60 (50 if disabled), your benefit will be reduced. If you claimed as soon as you become eligible at 60, you'd receive just 71.5% of your spouse's benefit.

When you take your own retirement benefit, you can hold out past your full retirement age to earn delayed retirement credits of 8% annually until you're age 70. But when you take spousal benefits, your benefit caps out at your full retirement age. Delaying until age 70 won't result in a bigger Social Security check. But you'd receive the higher amount if your spouse had already taken Social Security and earned delayed retirement credits.

And what if you qualify for your own retirement benefit? Social Security will give you whichever benefit is larger, but you won't get to collect both.

Two examples of how survivor benefits work

Because this topic can get so confusing, let's look at two examples of how survivor benefits work. In the first example, we'll assume your spouse died at age 45. In the second example, we'll see how survivor benefits work if your spouse was 75 when they died.

At age 45: If your spouse died at age 45, they obviously weren't eligible for Social Security yet. Social Security would use their lifetime earnings to determine their primary insurance amount based on their lifetime earnings. Suppose that amount is $2,000, you were also 45 at the time, and you and your spouse had two children under 16. Each of you would be eligible for 75% of your spouse's benefit, but you'd be subject to the family maximum. So your maximum combined benefit would be $3,000 to $3,600 (150% to 180%).

Eventually, you'd no longer qualify for benefits because of your children's ages. But if you're unmarried at age 60, you'd qualify for survivor benefits based on that $2,000. (The amount would be higher due to cost of living adjustments, but for simplicity's sake, let's keep it at $2,000.) If you claimed as soon as you turned 60, you'd receive 71.5%, or $1,430 monthly. But if you waited until 67, you'd get the full $2,000.

Age 75: Suppose your spouse dies at 75, and their primary insurance amount was $2,000, but they waited three years past full retirement age to claim, so their benefit was $2,480. If you've reached full retirement age, you can receive the full $2,480, but you won't get extra for waiting past that point. However, if you're younger, you'd only qualify for 71.5% to 99% of that $2,480. But if they'd claimed early, and their benefit was reduced to $1,800, your maximum survivor benefit would be $1,800.

As you can see, this can get extraordinarily complex, and there's no way to account for any scenario. If you have questions about whether you qualify for survivor benefits or how much to expect, your best bet is to call your local Social Security office.

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