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Social Security survivors benefits, Part 2

You might think Social Security is a program that only provides you with a monthly income after you retire. But what you might not realize is that Social Security may also provide monthly payments in the form of survivor's benefits, based on your work record, to certain members of your family after your death.

Earning survivor's benefits

In order to be able to provide Social Security survivor's benefits to your family, you have to earn those benefits. Generally, to be eligible for survivor's benefits, you must pay Social Security taxes and you have to work long enough to earn sufficient credits to be fully insured. The length of time you need to work and pay Social Security taxes depends on your age--the younger you are, the fewer years you need to work. But in any case, if you've worked at least 10 years (the equivalent of 40 credits) you'll be fully insured for any Social Security benefits, including survivor's benefits.

Even if you haven't worked long enough to be fully insured, if you've worked at least 1½ years out of the 3 years immediately before your death, survivor's benefits will be available to your dependent children and to your spouse if he or she is caring for your children.

Who can receive survivor's benefits?

Your spouse is eligible to receive full survivor's benefits at your spouse's full retirement age. Full retirement age is 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954, and gradually increases until reaching age 67 for people born in 1960 or later. Your spouse can receive reduced survivor's benefits as early as age 60. If your spouse is disabled, he or she can begin receiving survivors benefits as early as age 50. And your spouse can receive survivor's benefits at any age if he or she is caring for your child who is receiving Social Security benefits and is under age 16 or disabled.

Your former spouse, if you've been divorced, may receive survivor's benefits if your marriage lasted at least 10 years, and your former spouse does not remarry before age 60 (remarriage after age 60 will not affect your former spouse's eligibility for benefits based on your work record). If your former spouse is caring for his or her child who is under age 16 or who is disabled and entitled to benefits based on your work record, your former spouse may receive benefits at any age. In that case, your former spouse need not meet either the age or length-of-marriage requirements.

Your unmarried children may receive survivor's benefits if they are younger than age 18 or age 19 if they're attending elementary or secondary school full-time. If your child was disabled before reaching age 22, and remains disabled, he or she is eligible for benefits at any age. Also, your stepchildren, grandchildren, stepgrandchildren, or adopted children may be eligible for benefits under certain conditions.

Your dependent parents can get survivor's benefits if they're at least age 62 and you provide at least one-half of their support.

Of the total new benefits awarded by Social Security in 2009, 16% was paid to survivors of deceased workers. Source: Social Security Administration 

How much will the benefits be?

The easiest way to find out how much your family may receive in survivor's benefits is by checking your Social Security statement, which is sent to you each year beginning at age 25. Generally, survivor's benefits are based on your basic benefit amount, which can be increased by delayed retirement credits, or reduced if you claimed retirement benefits before reaching full retirement age. The amount your survivors receive is based on a percentage of your basic benefit, and the percentage, in turn, is based on the survivor's age and relationship to you.

For example, at full retirement age, your surviving spouse can receive 100% of your retirement benefit. However, if your spouse claims survivor's benefits between age 60 and under full retirement age, then the benefit will be reduced to between 71% and 99%, depending on his or her age. An eligible child and a surviving spouse caring for a child under age 16 would receive 75% of your benefit amount. At your death, there is also a one-time death benefit of $255 paid to your surviving spouse or child under certain circumstances.

Limits on benefits

Depending on the circumstances, the total amount of monthly benefits your family can receive is capped at between 150% and 180% of your retirement benefit amount. Your survivor's benefits may be reduced if you're receiving a pension from an employer that didn't contribute to Social Security, like federal civil service, or if you're under your full retirement age but still working, and your earnings exceed certain limits.

Social Security survivor's benefits are an important means of providing for the continued support of your family members after your death. For more information, go to the Social Security website, www.ssa.gov.