Social Security Survivors Benefits Page: 2 of 6
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How Survivors Insurance Works
Survivors Insurance Coverage. Coverage for survivors benefits is based on the
insurance status of the deceased. In order to become insured for survivors benefits, a
person must work at a job covered by Social Security. A person can earn up to four
Social Security credits each year, based on his or her earnings in a covered job.3 The
number of credits a person needs to qualify for Survivors Insurance depends on how old
the person is when he or she dies.
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 62.4
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.5 In 2007, 88% of Americans over age 20 were fully insured.6
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. In 2007, 97% of
covered workers age 20 to 49 were currently insured for survivors benefits.7
Determining Survivors Benefits. 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.8 Qualifying survivors will receive a percentage of this basic
benefit amount, depending on their age and their relationship to the deceased worker.
Survivors' benefits may be subject to reductions based on their earnings and family size.
If a survivor qualifies both for benefits based on his or her own work record and benefits
3 In 2008, one credit is earned for every $1,050 earned in covered employment, up to a maximum
of four credits (or $4,200) per year. This amount increases each year to account for wage growth.
4 A person is fully insured if he or she has earned at least one credit for each year between age
21 and turning 62, dying, or becoming disabled.
s SSA does not pay survivors benefits based on same-sex marriages. See CRS Report RS21897,
The Effect of State-Legalized Same-Sex Marriage on Social Security Benefits and Pensions, by
Laura Haltzel and Patrick Purcell.
6 Social Security Administration, "Fast Facts & Figures About Social Security, 2007," Sept.
2007, at [http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/chartbooks/fast facts/2007/fast_facts07.pdf].
SSA Fact Sheet.
8 This amount is called the Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). For more on calculating benefits,
see CRS Report 94-27, Social Security: Brief Facts and Statistics, by Gary Sidor.
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Social Security Survivors Benefits, report, January 8, 2008; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc812116/m1/2/: accessed January 17, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.