Retirement & Financial Planning Report

Eligibility for survivors benefits under Social Security differ greatly from the rules applying in the federal retirement program. In Social Security, survivor eligibility status is based on the insurance status of the deceased.

A person can earn up to four Social Security credits each year, based on his or her earnings in a covered job. The number of credits a person needs to qualify for Survivors Insurance depends on how old the person is when he or she dies.

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A person is fully insured for survivors benefits if he or she has at least 40 credits (or 10 years of work) at death; fewer credits are required for workers who die before age 62. Spouses, former spouses, children, and parents of fully insured workers are eligible for all types of survivors benefits as long as they meet the other requirements for those benefits.

A deceased worker’s children and the spouse (or former spouse) caring for those children could be eligible for survivors benefits even if the deceased worker does not have enough credits to be fully insured. The deceased worker is currently insured if he or she earned at least six credits during the last three years before death.

Social Security survivors benefits are determined using the same basic formula used to calculate Social Security retirement and disability benefits.

Benefits are based on the lifetime earnings of the person who died, so survivors of higher earners tend to receive higher benefits than survivors of lower earners. However, the benefit formula is progressive, so survivors benefits tend to replace a higher proportion of lower earners’ wages than of higher earners’ wages.

When a person applies for survivors benefits, the deceased worker’s basic benefit amount is determined. This amount is calculated by applying the basic Social Security benefit formula to the worker’s average earnings in covered employment, adjusted for wage growth. Qualifying survivors will receive a percentage of the basic benefit amount, depending on their age and their relationship to the deceased worker. Survivors benefits may also be subject to reductions based on the earnings of the survivors and family size.

If a survivor qualifies both for benefits based on his or her own work record and benefits based on a spouse’s record, the survivor receives the higher amount of the two. Survivors benefits, like all Social Security benefits, are increased each year to account for inflation.