Most of us never see the first 6.2% of our paychecks. That money goes straight to Social Security taxes. If you live long enough and earn the required 40 credits — which translates to 10 years of work — you’ll get a monthly retirement benefit someday.
But who gets your Social Security if you die tomorrow? What happens to all that money you’ve paid into the system?
Who Gets Your Social Security When You Die?
First let’s address a common misconception: Social Security doesn’t set money aside in an account for you. Your payroll taxes fund the Social Security trust. Once you’re eligible, you receive benefits from the trust. But the Social Security Administration doesn’t have a pot of money with your name on it.
When you die, your Social Security payments will stop. If you die before starting benefits, you won’t get the money you’ve paid in.
But with survivor benefits, someone else may be able to get Social Security based on your record. They aren’t “taking” your Social Security. They’re simply using your work history to qualify for Social Security benefits. If you have a spouse, an ex-spouse or dependents, they may be able to use your record to qualify for survivor benefits when you die. Here’s who gets what.
If You’ve Never Been Married and Don’t Have Dependents
No one will receive survivor benefits based on your record if you’ve never married and you don’t have children or other dependents. The money you’ve paid in is simply part of the Social Security trust. It will be used to pay Social Security’s other obligations.
If You’re Married
If you were married to your spouse for at least nine months, they’ll be eligible for survivor benefits. They can claim benefits once they turn 60 (or 50 if they’re disabled). If they remarry before they’re eligible, they can’t get survivor benefits while they’re married. However, after age 60 (or 50 if they’re disabled), getting remarried won’t affect their benefits.
For example, if your non-disabled spouse remarried at 55, they can’t receive survivor benefits as long as they’re married. If they get divorced, then they’re eligible. Or if they waited until age 60 to remarry, they’d be eligible as well.
Important caveat: Your spouse will receive the survivor benefit only if it’s higher than their own Social Security. In other words, Social Security will give them the bigger of the two benefits, but not both.
Their benefit depends on:
- Whether you had started benefits at the time of your death.
If you died before starting benefits, your spouse’s benefit would be based on your primary insurance amount. That’s the benefit you qualify for at full retirement age. But if you die after starting your Social Security, your spouse’s benefit is based on your benefit.
For example, if you claimed Social Security at 62, but your full retirement age was 67, your monthly checks would be one-third lower. Your spouse’s benefit would be based on that lower amount.
- How long your spouse waits.
If your spouse claims survivor benefits before their full retirement age, they’ll receive between 71.5% and 99% of your benefit — your primary insurance amount if you hadn’t started yet, or your actual benefit if you had.
If you leave behind a spouse who’s caring for your child who’s 16 or younger or disabled, they’ll receive 75% of your benefit, regardless of their age.
If You’re Divorced
Ex-spouses are generally eligible for the same survivor benefits as current spouses, provided you were married at least 10 years and have been divorced for two years. If you’ve remarried and your ex-spouse claims survivor benefits based on your record, it won’t affect your current spouse’s benefit.
If you’re a spouse claiming survivor benefits, your benefits max out at your full retirement age, rather than age 70.
If You Have Minor Children
Any children 18 or younger (or under age 19 if they’re still in high school) qualify for 75% of your benefit, provided that they aren’t married. That’s on top of the 75% your current or ex-spouse may receive for caring for your child.
However, Social Security has a maximum family benefit of 150% to 180% of your primary insurance amount. So if you die tomorrow and you’re survived by your spouse and four children under 16, they’d still get only 150% to 180% of your benefit.
If You Have Adult Children
Your children who are over 18 (or 19 if they’re still in high school) won’t qualify for survivor benefits. The exception: If they’re at least 22, unmarried and have a disability that started before they were 18, they can receive 75% of your benefit.
If Your Parents Are Your Dependents
If your parent is your dependent, meaning you provide at least half of their support, they could qualify for survivor benefits. They’ll be eligible only if you’re 62 or older when you die. They can get up to 75% of your benefit amount — but only if the survivor benefit is larger than their own benefit.
Are Survivor Benefits Enough?
Survivor benefits can certainly help your loved ones after your death, but they aren’t enough to protect your family, especially if you have young children. A 2020 Value Penguin survey found that survivor benefits would leave a widowed spouse caring for two children with an average monthly shortfall of $2,695.
If you have loved ones who depend on you, life insurance is a must. One common guideline is to buy enough life insurance to cover 10 times your annual income. However, this may not be enough if you have children whose college education you want to pay for, or if you and your spouse have significant debt.
The money you’ve paid into Social Security may help your loved ones if you die tomorrow. But be realistic. If you have dependents, survivor benefits alone probably won’t be enough.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected]