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Wills and estate planning

Social Security widows benefits

Social Security can be a significant source of retirement income for many Americans and is calculated from what they earn when they are still working.

When a Social Security recipient dies, his or her spouse may be entitled to collect 100 percent of the benefits, provided that the deceased individual has reached full retirement age (usually considered the age of 67 for those born after 1959). The amount, however, won't be as high if the deceased spouse claimed benefits before reaching full retirement age.

When your spouse passes away, figuring out what you are entitled to receive can seem confusing, especially during times of grief. Here is some of what you need to know about claiming and receiving Social Security widow benefits.

Who qualifies for widow benefits?

Generally speaking, a widow or widower may qualify for survivor benefits if the individual is at least 60 years old and has been married to the deceased individual for at least nine months at the time of death. Other qualifications can include being the surviving spouse of a Social Security beneficiary from whom you are divorced.

When and how to apply?

The funeral home handling the arrangements may go ahead and contact Social Security on your behalf. To do so, they will need the deceased individual's Social Security number. If the funeral home does not handle it for you, you will have to report the death on your own by contacting your local SSA Office or calling 1-800-772-1213. Reporting a death to Social Security cannot be done online.

Here is a list of information and documentation from the deceased individual that you will likely need to include when you apply:

  • Birth certificate

  • Proof of spouse's death

  • Tax returns

  • Marriage certificate

  • Proof of U.S. citizenship

  • U.S. military discharge paperwork

  • W-2 forms

How much will I receive?

The dollar amount of Social Security payments depends on how much your deceased spouse earned while working and what age you/he or she were when signing up to receive your benefits. To get a better estimate of your Social Security benefits, you can use one of the Social Security Administration's online calculators.

A widow's benefit is generally calculated on the benefit your late spouse was receiving from Social Security at the time of death. The AARP says that the actual amount of your payment will differ according to the following factors:

  • If you have reached full retirement age, you may receive 100 percent of the benefit.

  • If you claim survivor benefits between age 60 (50 if disabled) and your full retirement age, you may receive between 71.5 percent and 99 percent of the deceased's benefit. (The percentage rises with age.)

  • If you apply on the basis of caring for a child who is under 16 or disabled, you may be able to collect 75 percent of the late spouse's benefit, regardless of your age.

It's important to note that you will not receive a survivor benefit in addition to your own retirement benefit; Social Security will only pay whichever amount is higher. Also note that if you receive a government pension, some or all of your Social Security widow's or widower's benefit may be affected by the Government Pension Offset. You can maximize your Social Security spousal benefits by waiting until you have reached full retirement age.

Want more information? Check out this article to find out what you should know about Social Security and retirement planning.


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All Learning Center articles are general summaries that can be used when considering your financial future at various life stages. The information presented is for educational purposes and is meant to supplement other information specific to your situation. It is not intended as investment advice and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Protective Life or its subsidiaries.

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