What You Need to Know About Widow's Benefits

Seven simple answers to help you in a time of loss.

Nothing can ever truly prepare you for the loss of a spouse. In the midst of grieving and making arrangements, money will probably be the last thing on your mind. However, understanding how widow's benefits work may allow you to handle financial matters with a little more ease, so you can get back to the process of healing.

Survivors benefits, or a “widow's pension” as it’s sometimes called, refer to monthly Social Security payments made to the family members of a wage earner who has died. This income can help keep family finances on even footing during a very difficult time. Here are some important things to keep in mind if you are going through the process:

Who qualifies for Social Security spousal death benefits?

The Social Security for widow's rules are fairly simple, although there are some exceptions for disabilities. Here are some basic guidelines that will let you know if you could qualify.1 Generally, you must

  • Be at least 60 years old
  • Be the widow or widower of a fully insured worker
  • Have been married at least 9 months to the deceased
  • Not be entitled to an equal or higher Social Security retirement benefit based on your own work

If you’re wondering how to get Social Security widow's benefits you’ll need to apply by phone or at your local office after your spouse’s passing. If you have any questions, you can always reach out directly to the Social Security Administration.

What will you need when applying for widow's benefits?

Getting documents in order can be hard in this confusing time, so it’s good to be prepared before you begin the process. The Social Security Administration will ask for a lot of information. It may be helpful to have the following paperwork together when you apply:2

  • Your birth certificate
  • Proof of your spouse’s death
  • Proof of your U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status
  • Proof of your discharge from the U.S. military if you served prior to 1968
  • Tax returns and/or W-2 forms from the previous year
  • Marriage certificate

Visit the Social Security website to get a full list of what you’ll need when applying.

What benefits are widows entitled to?

Survivor benefits for a spouse are part of the Social Security retirement fund that your husband or wife paid into while they were working. That way, if they passed away, you wouldn’t be left without income. You receive a portion of the benefits that your spouse would have received, which you can collect as you near retirement age.

You can check your Social Security statement at any time to see what your Social Security spousal death benefits might be.3 If you’ve created an online account, you can log in and view your statement. If you haven’t, Social Security will mail you a statement 3 months before your birthday if you’re 60 or older. If you have any questions about how to view your statement, you can call your local Social Security office.

How long can a widow collect survivor benefits?

The answer to this question may vary. That’s because the length of time depends on your specific situation. Some factors include your age, your full retirement age and when you start drawing on your benefits. Full retirement age is between 65 and 67, depending on when you were born. For a complete list, take a look at this full retirement age chart.

Regardless of when someone passes away, you typically can’t receive SSA widow's benefits until age 60. But if you have a disability or share a child under 16 with the deceased, you may be eligible to collect your benefits earlier.3

Between age 60 and your full retirement age, you will receive a decreased percentage of what the full survivors benefit payment would be. This is because you will be receiving the benefits for a longer period of time than if you waited until your full retirement age to start receiving benefits.

For example, if your full retirement age is 66 and you start to receive survivors benefits at 62, you’ll get payments that are 81% of the full amount. That’s because you will be getting them for an additional 38 months. To see what your reduction in benefits would be if you accepted survivors benefits earlier, refer to this chart.

How much in survivors benefits can I collect?

There are several things to consider here such as the age of your spouse when they died and when you start to collect your widow's benefits. The examples below reflect the amount of benefits you could receive if you waited until full retirement age:

  • If your spouse already started collecting their benefits before they passed, but were not at their full retirement age, then you will receive the greater of 82.5% of their primary insurance amount or the amount they were receiving at the time of their death.3

  • If your spouse had already started collecting their benefits and had reached full retirement age, then you can receive the same benefit amount they were getting when they passed.

  • If your spouse didn’t begin collecting their benefits before they passed, you are entitled to the same payments they would have received after reaching their full retirement age.

  • If you start to draw on your widow's benefits before full retirement age, you’ll get a decreased percentage.

Can I collect widow's benefits and still work?

Yes. Social Security survivor benefits for a working spouse work the same way as if you are retired. You can collect the survivor benefits even if you are working, then switch to your own Social Security once you retire.

What about your Social Security benefits?

If you’ve been paying into Social Security, you’re still entitled to it. But, you can’t get widow's benefits and your own Social Security at the same time. You will get the greater of the two.4 If you’re eligible for both, you may have to figure out which of these options makes sense for you long-term:

  • Take the survivors benefits while delaying your own Social Security until full retirement age or 70. You will automatically start to receive your benefits when you turn 70.

  • Start drawing on your Social Security earlier and then switch to survivors benefits when you reach full retirement age or 70.

Losing a spouse is one of the hardest things to go through. Among the many stresses of losing a loved one, lost wages can make life even more challenging. Hopefully, understanding widow's benefits can help ease your mind as you work through the process. If you still have questions, you can always reach out to your financial planner or a Social Security representative for guidance.

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