This week, a reader named Missy asked us how to apply for the one-time, lump-sum Social Security death benefit. “When my husband passed away, I never received anything,” she recalls. We’ll explain the process below, including which documents you’ll need to apply.
How the Social Security Death Benefit Works
Whenever someone in your family passes away, it’s important to notify the Social Security Administration as soon as possible. Normally, the funeral director laying your loved one to rest handles this task. But depending on the circumstances, you may need to notify the SSA yourself. Regardless, someone must notify the SSA within two years of the date on your loved one’s death certificate. Once that deadline passes, survivors cannot apply for the lump-sum $255 Social Security death benefit.
Other people who may be eligible to apply for a Social Security death benefit include:
- The deceased worker’s unmarried child(ren) younger than 19 years old.
- Divorced spouses, in certain cases.
No matter who applies, the SSA usually pays the Social Security death benefit in a single lump-sum payment. That means the first eligible applicant will receive that $255 payment. If several eligible children apply at the same time, the SSA divides that one-time $255 payment evenly among them.
Who Cannot Qualify for the Social Security Death Benefit?
The SSA has certain rules about which spouses and children qualify for benefits after an insured worker passes away. If any of the following apply to you, then you’re not eligible for the $255 Social Security death benefit:
- You married the deceased worker less than nine months ago.
- You’re divorced and your marriage lasted less than 10 years.
- You’re younger than 60 and have no children younger than 16 years old living at home.
- You divorced the deceased worker after 10+ years of marriage, but then remarried.
- You’re an adult child of the deceased worker who’s at least 19 or not currently enrolled in school.
Widowed spouses aged 50-59 may also qualify if they become disabled within seven years of the worker’s death.
Documents You Should Pull Together Before You Apply
Surviving spouses must show the SSA they’re eligible to apply for the lump-sum Social Security death benefit. Make sure you have original versions of most documents listed below:
- Your birth certificate or similar proof of your age and identity. Not everyone has an original birth certificate just lying around the house, and the SSA won’t accept photocopies. But don’t worry — if you don’t have this document, the agency may also help you get one. Other proof the SSA usually accepts for this:
- Your (current, unexpired) passport, which also fulfills requirement #3 below.
- School records from before your 5th birthday.
- A signed statement from the doctor or midwife present at your birth.
- Census records.
- Your child’s birth certificate.
- Insurance policy documents (i.e., life, long-term care/disability, etc.).
- Your marriage record/certificate.
- Original family bible or record filled out at the time of your birth.
- Your deceased spouse’s death certificate.
- Proof of citizenship or lawful alien status. This applies to people born outside the U.S. or Green Card holders.
- Did you serve in the U.S. military before 1968? If yes, the SSA needs your discharge papers. (If you don’t have these, then the SSA can get them from the VA.)
- Photocopies of last year’s tax returns (i.e., w-2s, 1099s or self-employed tax documents you filed with the IRS).
Steps to Apply for $255 Social Security Death Benefit
You cannot apply for this one-time payment online. Follow these steps to either apply by phone or in person at your local Social Security office:
- To apply by phone, call 1-800-772-1213 Monday through Friday, 7am-7pm EST. TTY number: 1-800-325-0778.
- Make an appointment at your local Social Security office if you wish to apply in person. These offices are often very busy and sometimes closed to walk-in traffic. So, it’s best to call ahead and make an appointment if you can. To find yours, type your ZIP code into the local office locator on the SSA’s website.
- Do you have a printer at home? If yes, download and complete Form SSA-8 to take with you when applying in person. Otherwise, keep this form handy when you apply by phone so you can quickly and accurately answer the SSA’s questions.
- Decide how you want to receive your Social Security death benefit. The fastest, easiest option is direct-deposit. You can sign up for that by calling 1-800-333-1795. You can also do this in person at your bank, credit union or while on the phone with the SSA. Provide your bank’s routing info when you call or bring your checkbook to your in-person appointment. Don’t have a bank account? The SSA can load your $255 Social Security death benefit onto a debit card and mail it to you.
Eligible spouses and children may also qualify for monthly survivor’s benefits. Need help getting benefits after the SSA turned you down or want to apply for disability? Sign up for a free phone call from a local advocate within one business day.
Related: At What Age Can a Widow Draw Her Deceased Spouse’s SSD Benefits?
Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.