What are Social Security survivor benefits?

When a worker passes away, family members may be able to claim some, or all, of the monthly Social Security payments their loved one would have been entitled to receive. These “survivor benefits” can be an invaluable lifeline for families that have suddenly lost a provider. Additionally, the surviving spouse may qualify for a one-time death benefit payment of $255 to help with final expenses.

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Who qualifies for Social Security survivor benefits?

In general, Social Security survivor benefits are paid to widows, widowers, and dependents of workers who have paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years. More specifically, applicants must meet specific requirements to qualify for benefits.

1.    Those who qualify for a $255 lump-sum death benefit:

  • A spouse who was living with the deceased or, if living apart, was eligible for certain Social Security benefits on the deceased’s record.
  • If there’s no surviving spouse, a child who’s eligible for benefits on the deceased’s record in the month of death can receive this payment.

2.    Those who qualify for monthly benefit payments:

  • A surviving spouse who is age 60 or older (or age 50 or older if they have a disability); who is any age and is caring for a child of the deceased who is under age 16; or who has a disability and is receiving Social Security benefits.
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is either younger than age 18, or up to age 19 if a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school; or who is age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.
  • A stepchild, grandchild, step-grandchild, or adopted child under certain circumstances.
  • Parents, age 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support.
  • A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances.

How are Social Security survivor benefits calculated?

While the lump-sum death benefit remains fixed at $255, the size of the monthly benefit payments your survivors may be eligible to receive will vary based on your average lifetime earnings and a variety of other factors. Depending on the survivor’s age, the survivor’s relationship to the deceased, whether the survivor is receiving Social Security himself or herself, and other limitations, the survivor could receive 70% to 100% of the benefits that the worker would have received in retirement. (You can find an estimated amount of survivor benefits on your annual Social Security statement.)


Are survivor benefits enough to support my loved ones?

While survivor benefits may be enough to meet your family’s basic needs, the payments are unlikely to be enough to maintain the lifestyle you want for them. Your family will do better if there are additional assets, such as the death benefit of a life insurance policy, significant savings, or some other form of income to make up the difference. make up the difference.


What are life insurance death benefits?

Life insurance death benefits are paid, usually as a lump sum, by a life insurance company, and the amount your loved ones receive will be selected by you (the policy owner) when you purchase your coverage. Depending on your policy, this can range from a small amount to cover final expenses to a larger sum that will support your family for many years.


Who gets your death benefit when you die?

You can split your life insurance benefit up however you choose. It usually goes to one (or more than one) family member, but it can also go to a nonfamily member, a trust, a charity, or an estate. These are called designated beneficiaries, and you select them when you start your policy. You can change them later if you like.

Related: What is a beneficiary?


Does a death benefit count as income?

Most of the time, life insurance death benefits are not counted as income and are federal income tax free. This is a big reason why a life insurance policy is important to your financial planning. As always, be sure to consult a life insurance agent and a tax advisor to make sure your coverage will work as you wish.


Do I need life insurance if I have Social Security?

Everyone’s situation is unique, but for most people, the answer is yes. Survivor benefits will no doubt help your family if you have paid in for 10 years and they are eligible, but the right life insurance policy can do so much more. Life insurance policies are much more flexible than Social Security when it comes to naming beneficiaries (you can include friends, neighbors, or even your favorite charity). What’s more, the death benefit of a life insurance policy is usually paid in one lump sum, so your beneficiaries will receive the money much faster than they would through survivor payments. And with life insurance, you get to determine the size of the benefit,1 so it’s easier to make sure that your loved ones have the money they need to live comfortably, to pay off the mortgage on their home, or to meet any of their other financial obligations.


How much life insurance should I have?

It really depends on what you want to accomplish. Do you want just enough insurance to cover final expenses, or do you want to make sure your loved ones have a secure future? Do you want to make sure they can keep a roof over their heads? Or would you like to also help pay for future events like college or a wedding? As you can see, there’s a lot to consider—which is why it makes so much sense to work with a New York Life agent. That way, you can explore all of your options, see which ones fit your budget, and make the best possible decision for your family.


What life insurance options are there?

There are many different types of life insurance policies to meet your individual needs. Most fall into two broad categories:
Term life insurance is designed to cover a set period of time, often one, 10, or 20 years. After the term is up, premiums will go up every year if you choose to continue the policy. Term policies build no cash value, and they are generally used to cover specific needs that will change with time—for example, until the mortgage is paid off or until the children finish college. If your needs change, you can often convert term insurance to a more permanent solution.

Whole life insurance, on the other hand, is coverage that lasts a lifetime, as long as premiums are paid. In exchange for generally higher premiums than are charged for term life, these policies accrue cash value, and their cash value can even be accessed to supplement your retirement savings.2 If you’re looking for something that is guaranteed to grow and be there when your family needs it, you should consider whole life.

At New York Life, we have a full range of customizable life insurance policies to meet your specific needs. We want to make sure you get a policy that covers exactly what you want and nothing more. That way, you can keep costs down while ensuring that your family has all the protection it deserves. And if you have any questions, our experienced agents can guide you along the way.


How do I learn more about Social Security survivor benefits?

While our agents can help you with general information and financial planning advice, to learn more or to find out if your family would qualify for survivor benefits, see the federal Social Security survivor benefits page.


Frequently asked questions

The amount of benefits a loved one is eligible to receive will be based on two factors: 1) the age of the survivor at the time they apply and 2) the average lifetime earnings of the person who died. The more an individual pays into Social Security, the more money their will be eligible to receive. The Social Security Administration will use the deceased worker's basic benefit amount to calculate the percentage survivors can get.

Widow’s benefits are one type of survivor benefit—one that only widows and widowers can claim. Survivor benefits is a broader category that allows other relatives to claim benefits.

Social Security benefits are paid to the individual who has been paying into the system. Survivor benefits are paid to a surviving relative after the contributing individual passes away.

In most cases, spouses will receive survivor benefits for the rest of their lives. The only exceptions would be if they remarried or started to claim their own Social Security benefits. Dependent children can receive benefits until age 18 (19 if still in high school), or for the rest of their lives if they are disabled.


Want to learn more about life insurance?

A New York Life financial professional can help determine what’s right for you.

1 Depending on your budget and underwriting limitations.

2Accessing the cash value of a whole life policy will reduce the available cash surrender value and the death benefit.

Guarantees are based on the claims-paying ability of the issuer.
New York Life Insurance Company (NY, NY)