Retirement, Investments, & Insurance for Individuals Build your knowledge Who is eligible for Social Security and spousal, and survivorship benefits?

Who is eligible for Social Security and spousal, and survivorship benefits?

A range of people, including current and former spouses and dependent children, may be eligible for Social Security benefits.

Older couple sitting on park bench discussing retirement benefits through Social Security.
5 min read |

Quick takeaways

  • The Social Security program offers a variety of benefits for survivors such as spouses, divorced spouses, and those who are widowed.
  • Each benefit has its own set of eligibility requirements, which can be confusing; a tax advisor or financial professional can help.
  • Survivorship benefits must be applied for in person, but setting up a Social Security account online allows you to check your benefits at any time.

It’s likely at some point in your life—especially when you’re in retirement—you’ll receive Social Security benefits. In fact, older adults make up about 4 out of 5 current Social Security beneficiaries, and 97% of people age 60 to 89 currently receive or will receive Social Security.

But just who receives Social Security in retirement and how much they receive can be confusing, especially when you layer in benefits for spouses, former spouses, survivors, survivors with disabilities, and divorced surviving spouses. Here are some simple explanations.

Social Security for people in retirement

As you work, you earn what are referred to as Social Security credits. To qualify for retirement benefits from Social Security, you must work a minimum of 40 credits, which translates to approximately 10 years of work. (Credits actually have a dollar value equivalent to earnings; the Social Security Administration has extensive details on how credits are earned.) The years you work don’t have to be consecutive—it’s the total that matters, not when it happened—and the credits never expire.

If you meet the credit requirement, the earliest you may claim Social Security retirement benefits is age 62. But there’s a catch: The earlier you claim them, the less your monthly benefit will be. If you wait until what’s called full retirement age (FRA), you’ll receive the full benefit amount. (For those born in 1960 or later, your FRA is 67.) There’s no increase in benefits after age 70, so there’s no reason to delay claiming Social Security. And, you can still be employed after FRA and claim benefits. Read more about the best age to claim Social Security.

Social Security spousal benefits

For married couples, as soon as one person—spouse A—claims benefits, their spouse—spouse B—is then able to claim spousal benefits. These benefits are up to 50% of Spouse A’s amount, as long as Spouse B is not currently receiving benefits of their own. Spouse B can only claim spousal benefits if they are:

  • age 62 or
  • caring for a child younger than 16, or a mentally or physically disabled child of any age

The Social Security Administration provides a spousal benefit calculator that can help with estimates.

Social Security divorced spousal benefits

A divorced spouse may receive up to 50% of the benefit amount currently claimed by their ex-partner, as long as the person is at least age 62 and is not currently married, and the marriage lasted at least 10 years. (Benefits for a qualifying divorced spouse do not affect the amount of benefits you or your family may receive.)

Social Security survivorship benefits

If a person is receiving Social Security retirement benefits and they die, some individuals may be eligible to receive all or a portion of the deceased’s Social Security benefits. These are called survivorship benefits.

Who qualifies for Social Security survivorship benefits is a catch-all of different relationships to the deceased, including:

  • a spouse age 60 and older, or age 50 and older and disabled, or of any age and caring for children under age 16 or any children that are disabled
  • unmarried children younger than 18, or age 19 if a full-time student, or older than 18 with a mental or physical disability
  • stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, or adopted children, but circumstances apply
  • dependent parents, with restrictions
  • a divorced spouse, with eligibility requirements

This list is just a sampling of the what-ifs that govern survivorship benefits. It's complicated, and best to consult with a tax advisor or financial professional.

Social Security survivorship benefits for people with disabilities

Social Security makes survivorship benefits available for a variety of disabled survivors. They include:

  • a widowed, disabled person between the ages of 50 and 60, provided other conditions such as length of marriage are met
  • a widowed person of any age caring for a disabled child
  • a child 18 or older with a disability (mental or physical) that began before age 22 and lasted more than a year

Tip: The Social Security Administration offers extensive details on who qualifies and who does not when it comes to survivorship benefits for people with disabilities. Review their current booklet.

How much are survivorship benefits?

The amount that a survivor is eligible for may not be 1 to 1—meaning, 100% of the deceased benefits may not be due to the survivor. Two main caveats apply:

  1. Current Social Security benefits versus survivorship benefits: Survivorship benefits are not paid in addition to existing benefits; it’s one or the other. For example, if a surviving widowed person already receives their own Social Security retirement benefits, and that total exceeds the survivorship benefits, they will receive nothing extra. Conversely, if survivorship benefits are greater than current Social Security benefits, a person is entitled to the larger amount.
  2. Eligibility requirements: Social Security applies different percentages based on conditions. For example, spouses at FRA may receive 100% of the survivorship benefit, but less if they are younger. Children under age 18 may receive just 75%. The Social Security Administration offers specific breakdowns.

Applying for survivorship benefits

Survivorship benefits may not be applied for online. Either visit a local Social Security office or call +1-800-772-1213, Monday-Friday, 8:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. EST. 

Tip: The Social Security Administration offers an online tool that helps you determine if you’re eligible for benefits.

Social Security online account setup

The easiest way to track your credits, lifetime contributions, and work history, and stay informed on survivorship benefits is to set up a Social Security account online. Creating an online account for Social Security is also an important step in protecting your personal information. You’ll need a valid email address, Social Security number, and mailing address. Here’s what to do:

  • Visit the Social Security website.
  • Select “Create an account.”
  • Provide the personal information requested.
  • Wait for the activation code (often sent via USPS).
  • Then complete your account setup.

Online account access allows you to request a new card, view statements, and change benefit deposit information online. Or, you can view estimates of your future retirement, disability, and survivor’s benefits, and check for errors, too.

What’s next?

Social Security may only provide a portion of your needed retirement income. Are you saving enough to make up the gap? Log in to check your deferral rate, or rollover an old 401(k) into a new IRA.