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Who Qualifies for Social Security Retirement Benefits?

What You Need to Apply for Social Security Survivor Benefits

Copyright © 2012 AARP. All rights reserved.

When you’re applying for Social Security survivor benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will need a lot of information about you and the decedent. You can file for survivor benefits, for adults or children, as early as the month the covered worker or retiree dies. But rules on age affect when you're eligible to file:

  • Widows and widowers may get reduced benefits at age 60 and full benefits at full retirement age. (If survivors age 62 and up file for benefits based on their own earnings, they get the larger of their survivor benefit or any retirement benefit they have earned.)

    Note: The full retirement age for widows and widowers is computed slightly differently than for workers and their spouses.

  • Disabled widows and widowers may qualify at 50.

  • Widows and widowers at any age if they are caring for the deceased worker’s child who is under 16 or disabled and getting benefits.

  • Unmarried children under 18 or up to 19 if still in high school. A parent or guardian may file on behalf of the child.

  • Children of any age who were disabled before age 22.

  • Financially dependent parents older than 62.

    Dependent parents applying for survivor benefits on a deceased adult child’s record must prove that they relied on the adult child for half their financial support.

You may be eligible for up to six months of benefits prior to your application date (12 months for disabled widows/widowers ages 50 to 59), but not for any month before the breadwinner died. Benefits generally are not retroactive for widows/widowers without children who haven’t reached full retirement age.

In addition to receiving survivor benefits, you may be eligible to receive the lump-sum death benefit, a one-time payment of $255 to survivors after the death of a covered worker. You must file for this benefit within two years of the worker’s death. You may file in person or by calling the SSA.

The following information and documents may be needed to apply for survivor benefits:

  • The deceased person’s Social Security number.

  • Your Social Security number and the Social Security number of any dependent children.

  • Your birth certificate (original or certified copy) or an acceptable religious record (such as a baptismal certificate) from earlier than age 5.

  • Your Form W-2 earnings statement (one from each of your employers) or your tax return (if you’re self-employed) from the prior year. Photocopies of these documents are acceptable.

  • The deceased person’s death certificate or a statement of death from a funeral director.

  • Your marriage certificate or divorce papers (if you’re applying for survivor benefits as a widow/widower or former spouse).

The SSA doesn’t go by the honor system. The documents you provide to back up your claim generally must be originals or official copies certified by the issuing agency — notarized photocopies won’t cut it. If you need to demonstrate birth, death, or marriage and you don’t have the proper certificates, the SSA may consider other evidence, such as a religious record of birth, a funeral director’s statement of death, or a marriage license.

The SSA expects you to return any payments sent to a deceased beneficiary. If the benefits were paid by direct deposit, notify the bank; if the benefits were paid by check, the check should be returned to the SSA.

The SSA makes payments with a one-month time lag. If someone dies in February, it’s the payment received in March (and anything after March) that must be returned. Be sure to contact the SSA soon after a person’s death to avoid this situation.

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