Social Security Death Benefits Explained

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The weeks and months following the death of a loved one can be an incredibly difficult time. There is often confusion about the family’s rights and responsibilities in administering their loved one’s estate, including rights and obligations when it comes to Social Security Benefits.

Follow these steps when notifying Social Security of a death and determining whether you and other family members are eligible for Social Security spousal death benefits, death benefits for children, or a one-time burial death benefit.

Step 1. Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA)

The SSA needs to be notified after someone dies, and the timing of that notification is especially important when the deceased person was a current Social Security recipient. That’s because payments made after a recipient’s death will need to be returned. If your loved one’s Social Security payment was electronically deposited, the SSA will debit the account electronically if the estate needs to repay amounts disbursed. If the SSA mailed a paper check that your loved one wasn’t entitled to because of his or her death, the estate will receive a letter asking for reimbursement.

Providing prompt notification of your loved one’s death can eliminate this type of overpayment issue. Sometimes, funeral homes or cremation services providers notify SSA as part of the services they provide. Otherwise, the estate executor or personal representative must handle that notification.

To report a death to the SSA, call 800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) or contact your local Social Security office.

Step 2. Determine eligibility for spousal or dependent survivors’ benefits

If your deceased family member was not yet earning Social Security but had worked for at least a year and a half out of the three years leading up to their death, family members may be able to claim monthly survivors’ benefits.

Check this list to see if you may qualify for spousal benefits or Social Security death benefits for children after a loved one’s death:

  • You are the spouse of the deceased person and you are at least 60 years old
  • You are disabled and are the spouse of the deceased person, and you are at least 50 years old
  • You are the spouse of the deceased person and are caring for the deceased person’s child who is under the age of 16 or is disabled, and who is receiving death benefits on the deceased person’s record (it does not matter how old you are if you otherwise qualify under this provision.)
  • You are the deceased person’s child, are under the age of 18, and are not married
  • You are the deceased person’s child, are not married, are over the age of 18, and have a disability that began before you reached the age of 22.
  • You are the parent of the deceased person, are age 62 or older, and you depended on your deceased child for at least one-half of your support.
  • You are the divorced spouse of a worker who died and you were married to the deceased person for at least ten years.

In certain cases, step-children, grandchildren, and step-grandchildren may also be eligible for survivors’ benefits.

The amount of benefits you’ll receive will be based on your deceased loved one’s earnings record. There are maximum family death benefit amounts, as well as caps on the amount of income you can earn while still being eligible to receive survivors’ death benefits.

Step 3. Determine eligibility for the one-time death benefit

Eligible surviving spouses and children may be able to claim a one-time $255 death benefit from the SSA. If you were married to and were living with the deceased person, or if you were separated but were receiving Social Security benefits on your spouse’s record at the time of his or her death, you will generally qualify.

If your parent was not married at the time of his death, and if you were receiving Social Security benefits on his or her record, you may also be eligible for this one-time $255 payment.

You can use one-time Social Security death benefits for burial expenses, or for any other purpose.

Step 4. Apply for social security death benefits

If you believe you qualify for either the one-time death benefit or for ongoing monthly survivors’ benefits, you will need to apply to receive those benefits.

You cannot apply online; you either need to initiate the process by calling the SSA at 800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) or by visiting your local Social Security office during regular business hours. While you don’t need an appointment, scheduling one may limit the time you need to spend waiting.

The SSA’s website provides more information about applying for benefits, such as the types of documentation you will need to support your application. That documentation differs depending on whether you are the widow/widower, surviving child, surviving parent, or are caring for a child that is either under the age of 16 or disabled.

If you are eligible for Social Security benefits based on your loved one’s death, those proceeds can help with the expenses you’ll face.

Step 5: Plan ahead for yourself

What will happen when you die or if you become incapacitated? Will your loved ones know how to handle your affairs? You can make the process of managing your affairs easier on your family by creating your own estate planning documents now – while you have the capacity to do so. Use Cake to create a free end-of-life plan you can share with your family.