While Social Security survivor benefits enable surviving spouses to substitute their former or deceased spouse’s higher benefit for their own, the rules governing these benefits are complex and can be difficult to understand; therefore, it is important that you understand the basics.


The first step you need to take is to determine your eligibility. Spousal benefits are available for those aged 60 or older who were married for at least 10 years—as long as they did not remarry before age 60. Other family members can also qualify for survivor benefits, such as children under the age of 16, adult children who became disabled before age 22, and even a parent—provided that parent relied on the deceased for at least half of his or her income.


You also need to determine your claiming strategy. Some survivors opt to delay benefits, which would lead to a higher monthly payout, while others choose to start receiving benefits as soon as possible. Your own expected lifespan is one factor you should take into consideration when determining timing. Whatever you choose, it’s a good idea to go over your situation with a trusted financial advisor.


Surviving spouses may choose to either claim survivor benefits or their own worker benefits; it’s not possible to claim both at the same time. Keep in mind full retirement age for these two types of benefits can be different. You can also claim one benefit first, and then switch to the other, higher benefit upon reaching full retirement age. This strategy is called staging benefits—and while it may work for some people, it may not be ideal for everyone.


For more information about claiming Social Security survivor benefits, visit the information page for survivors on the Social Security website.


Before making any decisions, first consult with a financial advisor for guidance. TIAA-CREF can also help you navigate Social Security benefits for surviving spouses. Read more here.