Social Security for Widowed Parents Falls Far Short of Need

Many families who lose a spouse and/or parent struggle financially on top of the grief and trauma. More needs to be done to address the limitations of Social Security’s survivors benefits.

A young widow and her daughter visit a grave.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Most widows are younger than you think. The reality is that the average age of widowhood in the U.S. is 59, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and many of these surviving parents have dependent children at home. Losing a spouse at any age is difficult, but it can be even more devastating for solo mothers and fathers. In addition to the grief and trauma, most families struggle financially after the death of one of the parents, and Social Security is inadequate to replace the lost earnings.

Who qualifies for Social Security survivors benefits?

Widows (no matter their age) with dependent children under 16 will likely qualify for Social Security survivors benefits. Children of the deceased parent may also be eligible to benefit from Social Security until they reach age 18, or age 22 if they are disabled. Other family members, such as adopted children, stepchildren and grandchildren, can also qualify in certain situations.

You can collect on your spouse's benefit if you were married for at least nine months before their death. You can also receive assistance if you are divorced, but had been married for 10 years to the deceased parent. It does not matter if your ex-spouse remarried; the Social Security Administration (SSA) cares only that you are unmarried. Your ex’s new mate can also receive payments, but don’t worry — this will not impact your benefits.

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There is a catch, though. You will need 40 credits (or 10 years of working experience) to qualify for retirement benefits. The SSA has less stringent credit requirements for younger workers for survivors benefits, but you will want to check with your financial adviser or local Social Security office to understand better if your deceased spouse's work record qualifies.

The parent who passed must also have earned enough credits in the Social Security system to qualify. For every $1,640 of earnings, you get one credit. Therefore, you will earn four credits once you make $6,560 a year, which is the maximum number of credits that can be earned annually.

The Social Security Administration made some significant income adjustments because of sky-high inflation, and 2023 saw the most significant hike in social benefits paid in 40 years. The 8.7% cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, was a welcome boost in income for all recipients. However, most families dependent on Social Security are struggling financially, and this is especially true of widows.

Social Security falling short of the need

Benefits are calculated taking into consideration your average lifetime earnings, and the higher your wages, the higher the benefits paid. However, a surviving parent living in New York with her two kids will receive an average of a little over $39,000 a year in Social Security survivors and child benefits. It is almost impossible to survive on $39,000, let alone support two children, in New York, which has a very high cost of living and some of the country's highest taxes.

To put this gap in perspective, the mean take-home pay for a full-time worker in this area is nearly $90,000 yearly, leaving a monthly shortfall of over $4,250 for the solo parent.

"In addition to financial challenges that come with the loss of an income-earning parent, the surviving parent must also navigate the complex legal aspects of Social Security benefits," advises attorney Alison Arden Besunder, chair of the Trusts & Estates Group at Goetz Fitzpatrick in New York City. "While Social Security survivor benefits provide some relief, the limited resource it provides is insufficient to meet the full scope of financial needs of widows and their children who are suddenly thrust into being deprived of a parent’s income. Seeking guidance from an experienced attorney can help widowed parents explore additional legal options, such as estate planning and trusts, to ensure long-term financial security for their families."

Benefit calculations and limits hurt families

Children of the deceased who qualify can receive 75% of their deceased parent's benefit. In addition, the widow caring for a child under age 16 is also eligible to collect 75% of the deceased parent's benefit. These benefits might seem rich at first blush, but for many, the math does not add up.

Carley, a widowed parent living in Miami, Florida, is one of the young widows whom Social Security is failing. Her husband and the father of her dependent children passed away suddenly in December 2022. Based on his earnings record, Phillip's benefit was $2,400 a month. They have three children under 16, and all of them are qualified to collect.

Carley did the math and was relieved to see that each of the children could get 75% of Phillip's benefit. Carley can also collect another 75% of his benefit. According to Carley's math, she was expecting an SSA paycheck of $7,200 a month (4 recipients x ($2,400 benefit x .75%) = $7,200).

However, the Social Security Administration has rules with the goal of limiting their payments. The total family benefit amount cannot be higher than 150% to 188% of the amount that would have been paid to the deceased parent at their full retirement age. The family maximum is rarely an issue for widows without young children. However, those with several children will most likely have their families' benefits reduced.

Carley visited the Social Security office to start the application process and was surprised to find that the maximum amount the family could receive was only $4,512 a month (188%*$2,400 = $4,512), a difference of over $2,600 a month. Unfortunately, Carley had to move in with her elderly mother in Wisconsin. The kids were devastated to leave their friends, school and the only home they had ever known.

"More needs to be done, and the start is by looking at how the current Social Security program can better help support these struggling families," says Natalie Colley, lead adviser at Francis Financial. "In the midst of the highest Social Security payment hike in 40 years, widowed parents with dependent children still face financial hardships. The current maximum family benefit and survivor benefit rules only exacerbate the challenges for these grieving parents. It is imperative that we address the inadequacy of Social Security in providing for widows and their children. Our focus should be on advocating for changes that alleviate the financial burden and reduce the risk of poverty for these vulnerable families."

As president and CEO of Francis Financial, I will be speaking at the International Widows Forum on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on International Widows Day (June 23). Widow advocacy needs public and governmental awareness.

Carolyn Moor, founder of Modern Widows Club, will also be meeting with congressional leaders to move this agenda forward. Moor shares, “At Modern Widows Club, we see the daily struggles of many young, widowed parents around the impact of financial insecurity. The numerous secondary losses add to the exponential challenges after a parental primary loss. We found on average it takes seven years for a new solo parent to rebuild their new life identity, both personally and as a family, to feel sufficient in all areas as a new head of household leader.”

Widows going back to work are penalized

Even fewer widows realize that the Social Security Administration will penalize them for trying to support their families. If you earn over $21,240 in 2023 and are below the full retirement age, the government will reduce your survivors benefits. The SSA will take $1 from your survivor payments for every $2 you earn above this limit.

Jessica is one of these single, widowed mothers struggling to make ends meet after her ex-husband, Brenden, died and her child support payments stopped. Unfortunately, the Social Security benefits were insufficient to replace the lost child support.

Jessica was able to secure a position as a cleaner, earning $40,000 a year, but she did not know that this extra income would reduce her entitlement through the SSA. Because of the Social Security survivors benefits rules, Jessica saw her benefits drop by nearly $10,000 annually.

Final thoughts

The economics of widowhood result in a sharp drop in income for the survivor, especially if they care for young children. Parents have a double loss. First, they must deal with the crushing grief of losing their spouse and parent to their children. Many also face a second loss, as the widowed parent struggles to provide essential items of daily living for their children. The costs of maintaining a home, health care, food, gas, and other necessities can plunge a family into financially devastating debt.

More needs to be done, and the start is by looking at how the current Social Security program can better help support these struggling families. We all must advocate for changes to the program to reduce the risk of poverty for our most vulnerable families.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA®, CES™
President & CEO, Francis Financial Inc.

Stacy is a nationally recognized financial expert and the President and CEO of Francis Financial Inc., which she founded 15 years ago. She is a Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®) and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) who provides advice to women going through transitions, such as divorce, widowhood and sudden wealth. She is also the founder of Savvy Ladies™, a nonprofit that has provided free personal finance education and resources to over 15,000 women.