Social Security is the government program that provides monthly payments to retired people, the elderly, the disabled and those who otherwise qualify to receive such benefits. When a person works and pays Social Security taxes, the government uses the money collected to fund the Social Security program of benefit payments. The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages the Social Security program.

There are two kinds of social security death benefits related to the demise of a working person. One benefit is the special death payment of $255. A surviving child or spouse of a deceased worker may obtain the special lump-sum death payment, if they meet certain requirements. The lump-sum death benefit is not paid if there is no qualified surviving spouse or child.

The other kind of Social Security death benefit is the Social Security Survivor Benefit.
If a person is eligible for or receiving Social Security benefits at the time they die, certain members of their family who survive them may be eligible to receive all or a portion of the deceased person’s monthly Social Security benefits; these benefits are called “survivor benefits.” Generally, the following family members may be eligible to receive survivor benefits:

  • Surviving spouse;
  • Minor children;
  • Disabled children;
  • Parents if they were dependent on the decedent’s financial support; and/or
  • In certain circumstances, even a stepchild, grandchild, step grandchild, or adopted child may qualify for a
  • Social Security Survivor Benefit.

How Are Benefits for Surviving Spouses Determined?

A family member’s survivor benefits will depend on the decedent’s Social Security contributions throughout their lifetime. Some of the other factors that affect eligibility for survivor’s benefits are: the number of marriages which the deceased person had, the length of any marriages, the decedent’s marriage status at the time of their death, current disabilities or illnesses of the surviving spouse and whether the decedent was receiving full benefits at the time of their death.

A surviving spouse may be eligible to receive up to 100% percent survivor benefits if they are age 60 or older and retired.

If the decedent left a widow or widower who is age 60 or older or who is age 50 or older and disabled, the surviving spouse may be eligible to receive additional survivor benefits if the deceased person was married to them for at least nine months. This length of marriage can be waived if they take care of the decedent’s children and the children are 16 or younger or are disabled.

A divorced surviving spouse whose marriage to the decedent lasted at least 10 years can also receive Social Security survivor benefits if they are age 60 or older. 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 person must have been fully eligible for Social Security at the time of their death. “Fully eligible” means they had accumulated at least the necessary 40 Social Security work credits or 10 years of work at the time of their death. Of course, the number of years for which a person was employed and the amount of money they made while employed affects the amount of the Social Security benefit that they are entitled to receive.

The younger the decedent was at the time of their death, the fewer credits they will need for family members to collect survivor benefits. Moreover, 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 had not accumulated the required number of Social Security credits.

Each situation is different and the rules as to who can and cannot receive Social Security Survivor benefits are complicated. A surviving family member may still be able to collect benefits and should speak to a Social Security Administration representative or to an experienced Social Security lawyer.

How Are Benefits to Surviving Children Determined?

A child who is a person’s biological child, adopted child, or dependent stepchild is eligible for children’s survivor benefits if:

  • The person becomes disabled;
  • The person retires;
  • The person dies;

AND the child is:

  • Unmarried, and
  • Under age 18,

OR

  • 18-19 and a full-time student in a secondary school through grade 12, or
  • 18 or older and disabled with a disability that started before age 22.

If a person who is eligible for Social Security should become disabled or retire, their qualified child is eligible for up to 50% of their full retirement age benefit. If the person dies, their qualified child is eligible for up to 75% of their full retirement age benefit.

Under certain circumstances and rules, dependent grandchildren could be eligible for a benefit also.

Are There Caps on Social Security Survivor Benefits?

If a person becomes disabled or retires, their qualified child is eligible for up to 50% of the person’s full retirement age benefit.

If the person dies, their qualified child is eligible to receive up to 75% of the person’s full retirement age benefit.

Family Benefit Maximum Limits

Each child who qualifies for survivor benefits may receive a monthly benefit payment that is based on the amount of the decedent’s full retirement benefit. There is, however, a limit to the amount the Social Security Administration will pay, which is known as the “Family Benefit Maximum.”

The maximum benefit is approximately 150 to 180 percent of the decedent’s full retirement benefit. The exact percentage depends on the amount of the decedent’s full retirement age benefit.

There is an exception. If the decedent has a divorced spouse who is receiving benefits based on the decedent’s work record, it does not count in the family benefit maximum, so it will not affect the amount of benefits that the person or their family may receive.

If a child is receiving benefits from Social Security, there is a limit on the amount of earnings they can receive from wages or self-employment. These income limits change annually.

A child’s earnings affect only their own benefits and not the parent’s or those of any other beneficiaries receiving payments on the parent’s Social Security record.

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

There is more information about survivor’s benefits on the website of the Social Security Administration. A person cannot apply for survivor benefits online. A person must apply either by telephone or in person by going to the nearest Social Security Office.

A person needs proof of death, which is usually provided by the funeral home. Some funeral homes will report the death to the Social Security Administration, if the survivor provides the funeral home with the deceased’s Social Security Number.

Or a person can make an appointment with the Social Security Administration and bring the following information:

  • The person’s birth certificate;
  • Proof of adoption, if there is an adoption;
  • Proof of the worker’s marriage to the child’s parent if the child is the stepchild of the worker;
  • Marriage certificate or divorce certificate;
  • Divorce decree if a person is the divorced widow/widower;
  • The birth certificates and Social Security numbers of the decedent’s children; and
  • The most recent W-2 forms of the deceased worker.

The type of documents a person needs depends on the type of relationship the person had with the decedent and the person should be prepared to bring any documents that establish the qualifying relationships

Any applicant would also want to have their checkbook or other documentation showing their account number at a bank, credit union or other financial institution where they have an account to which they would want the Social Security Administration to send their monthly payments.

If a person’s application for Social Security Survivor Benefits is denied, the person can appeal the denial. A person has 60 days after they receive a notice of decision on their case from the SSA to ask for an appeal. There are four levels of appeal:

  • Reconsideration;
  • Hearing by an administrative law judge;
  • Review by the Appeals Council;
  • Federal Court review.

A person can request an appeal online for a reconsideration, a hearing by an administrative law judge, or a review by the Appeals Council, even if the person lives outside of the United States. When the SSA makes its first decision regarding a person’s application for a Survivor Benefit, the SSA sends the person a letter explaining its decision. This letter contains guidance on what level of appeal the person should select. So it is important to read the decision letter that a person receives from the SSA thoroughly and then to act promptly if they want to appeal the decision.

If a person appeals to the Appeals Council’s decision and gets an adverse decision, or if the Appeals Council decides not to review the case, i.e. not to hear the appeal, the person can file a civil suit in a federal district court. This is the last level of the appeal for SSA decisions. Filing for a Federal Court review cannot be done online. If a person wants to proceed to this level, they would probably want to consult an experienced Social Security attorney.

How Do I Check the Status of My Social Security Benefits Application?

There are two basic ways to check on the status of a Social Security benefits application. The first is to check online through the SSA website. To do this, a person needs to create a “My Social Security” account. Once that is done, the person can enter the information requested to access their file.

The second way to check on the status of an application is to call the SSA directly. A representative can check the status of an application. In either case, a person needs to provide the following information:

  • Full name;
  • Social Security number;
  • Contact information (phone number and/or email address).

In any event, when a decision is made, the SSA will inform a person in writing of the decision.

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

There is plenty of information online about Social Security Survivor Benefits and how to apply for them. Of course, if a person wants to get an expert opinion as to whether they qualify for the benefit or to make sure that they are applying correctly and making their best case, they would want to consult an experienced Social Security attorney.

An experienced Social Security attorney should be able to inform you as to whether you qualify for a benefit and how to present your best case when you apply. If you get an adverse decision, they can help you with an appeal. You are most likely to get the best possible outcome in your case if you have a qualified Social Security lawyer representing your interests.