Social Security is the government program that provides some level of financial security to retired employees, the elderly, the disabled and those who otherwise qualify to receive such benefits. When you pay Social Security taxes, the government uses the money collected to fund the Social Security program.

Unlike other retirement programs which are pre-funded, the social security program is a fund-as-you-go program. This means the amount of taxes you pay goes to fund the benefits of someone currently retired and when you retire, those who are currently paying social security taxes will be funding your retirement.

Social security benefits are determined based on the amount of the social security taxes you pay, which is itself determined by your regular income. If you retire or become disabled, then the government will issue checks based on the amount you paid throughout your lifetime.

What are Social Security Survivor Benefits?

If you are insured at the time you die, certain members of your family may be eligible to receive all or a portion of your Social Security benefits. Generally, the following family members may be eligible to receive survivor benefits:

  • Surviving spouses;
  • Minor or disabled children;
  • Parents who were dependent on the decedent’s financial support; and/or
  • In certain circumstances, a stepchild, grandchild, step grandchild, or adopted child.

How are Benefits for Surviving Spouses Determined?

Your family member’s survivor benefits will depend on your Social Security contributions throughout your  lifetime. Some of the other factors relevant to their benefits determination are the number of marriages, your marriage status at the time of your death, current disabilities or illnesses of your spouse and whether you are fully insured at the time of your death.

A surviving spouse can receive a one-time payment of $255 after your death. As well, they may be eligible to receive up to 100% percent survivor benefits if they are age 60 or older and are retired.

If you left  a widow or widower who is age 60 or older or who is age 50 or older and disabled, they may be eligible to receive additional survivor benefits if you were married to them for at least nine mounts. This length of marriage can be waived if they take care of your children and the children are 16 or younger or are disabled.

A divorced surviving spouse also can receive Social Security survivor benefits if they are age 60 or older and the marriage to you lasted at least 10 years. A divorced surviving spouse may be eligible for benefits also if they are age 50 or older and disabled and the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Again, the required length of marriage can be waived if the ex-spouse takes care of the decedent’s child who is 16 or younger or is disabled.

The deceased must be fully insured at the time of their death. Fully insured means they had at least 40 Social Security work credits or 10 years’ of work at the time of their death. This number of credits depends on the worker’s age when they died, but no one needs more than 40 credits or 10 years of work to be eligible for Social Security benefits.

The younger the decedent, the fewer credits they will need for family members to collect survivor benefits. As well, benefits can be paid to the surviving children and to the surviving spouse who is caring for the decedent’s children, even if the decedent doesn’t have the required credits. Each situation is different and you may still be able to collect benefits by speaking to a Social Security Administration representative.

How are Benefits to Surviving Children Determined?

Surviving children of a fully insured decedent may be entitled to as much as 75% until age 18 so long as they are unmarried. They can continue to receive benefits until age 19 if they are attending elementary or secondary school full time. The age requirements can be waived if the child is disabled before age 22.

Are there Caps on Social Security Survivor Benefits?

There is a family maximum on combined benefits of between 150 and 180 percent of the decedent’s benefits.

What is the Process for Applying for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

You can learn more about survivor’s benefits on the website of the Social Security Administration. Note that you cannot apply for survivor benefits online. You must do so either by telephone or in person.

You will need proof of death, which is usually handled by the funeral home. If you do want the funeral home to report the death to the Social Security Administration, provide the funeral home with the deceased’s Social Security Number so they can do that.

You should schedule an appointment with the Social Security Administration and bring with you the following information:

  • Your birth certificate;
  • Marriage certificate or divorce certificate;
  • Divorce certificate if you are the divorced widow/widower;
  • Birth certificate and Social Security number of the decedent’s children; and
  • Most recent W-2 forms of the deceased worker.

Keep in mind that the type of documents you need will depend on the type of relationship you had with the deceased, so be prepared to bring any documents that establish a qualifying relationship.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Apply for Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Typically, no. In most cases, a lawyer is not needed to apply for social security survivor benefits. The survivor simply needs to submit documentation of the individual’s death and contact the Social Security Administration.

However, if your application was denied and you believe you qualify as listed above, then a government lawyer can help you understand the process and file an appeal if they believe you qualify.