What’s the Social Security Death Benefit?

Disability Benefits

The widow or widower of a deceased individual (along with their dependent children) in some cases may qualify for monthly Social Security benefits. But did you know the surviving spouse is also eligible for a lump-sum payment? This lump-sum Social Security death benefit was initially approved in the 1935 Social Security legislation. The Lump Sum Death Benefit (LSDB) wasn’t intended as a “burial benefit,” although it did evolve into the Social Security death benefit as we know it today. The original concern was paying out equity for individuals who died prior to their full retirement age, or FRA. When the Social Security death benefit legislation initially passed, the FRA was 65.

How the SSA Calculates the Social Security Death Benefit Amount

Early in the Social Security system’s history, survivor benefits weren’t included in the program. So survivors only received the lump-sum Social Security death benefit when a worker died. Then, a 1940 legal amendment defined the LSDB as six times the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). The PIA is the monthly Social Security benefit amount for workers once they reach full retirement age. The average LSDB payment in 1940 was $145.79. In 1954, legislators capped the Social Security death benefit at $255. The amount hasn’t changed once since then!

For decades, various politicians looking to reform Social Security programs tried to eliminate this lump-sum payment. But doing so is always a very unpopular proposition — which means the small Social Security death benefit still exists.

Who Qualifies for the Social Security Death Benefit After a Worker Dies?

A surviving spouse or child may receive a special $255 lump-sum Social Security death payment if they meet certain requirements. The SSA pays this lump-sum amount to the surviving spouse living in the deceased worker’s household when that person died. For spouses living apart, the survivor can still receive the lump-sum if, during the month the worker died, they were already receiving benefits on the worker’s record or became eligible for benefits upon the worker’s death.

Who Can Receive the Death Benefit If No Spouse Survives?

In cases with no surviving spouse, the SSA can pay the lump-sum to any deceased worker’s child already receiving benefits on the parent’s record during the month that worker died. If the eligible surviving spouse or child isn’t currently receiving benefits, they must apply for this payment within two years of the date the worker died.

Applying for the Social Security Death Benefit

You must apply in order to receive the lump-sum Social Security death benefit. When you do, the SSA will likely ask for these documents:

  • A birth certificate or other proof of birth
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status for applicants born outside the United States
  • U.S. military discharge paper(s) for applicants who completed military service before 1968
  • W-2 forms(s) and/or self-employment tax returns for the last calendar year
  • A death certificate for the deceased worker

When a family member dies, tell the Social Security Administration as soon as possible. Relatives may qualify for Social Security benefits if the deceased person worked long enough in jobs that withheld FICA taxes.

In addition to the one-time $255 payment, certain family members may qualify for monthly benefits, including:

  • A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if disabled)
  • A widow or widower at any age caring for children who are disabled or younger than 16 years old
  • The deceased worker’s unmarried children under age 18 (full-time students up to age 19 may also qualify)

Are you struggling to navigate the death benefit application process while you’re still grieving? An experienced disability attorney or advocate can help guide you through the paperwork and answer your questions privately. Best of all, an attorney can secure any benefit payments the SSA owes you as quickly as possible.

Ready to see if you may qualify? Click the button below to start your free online benefits evaluation now:

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Laura Schaefer is the author ofThe Teashop Girls,The Secret Ingredient, andLittler Women: A Modern Retelling. She is also an active co-author or ghostwriter of several nonfiction books on personal and business development. Laura currently lives in Windermere, Florida with her husband and daughter and works with clients all over the world. Visit her online at lauraschaeferwriter.com and linkedin.com.