Claiming Death Benefits

A Death Certificate is the Key Document You'll Need

Social Security CardIn addition to life insurance policies, death benefits may be available from a variety of sources. Funeral Directors can help gather the information needed to apply for the applicable death benefits. In most cases, you’ll need a copy of the Death Certificate to file for benefits.


Following are common sources of benefits and assistance:

  • Social security survivor benefits — see below for details
  • Veterans’ burial and survivor benefits — see below for details
  • Pension / retirement funds
  • Workman’s compensation, if death was work-related
  • Civil service — federal, state, county, local
  • Railroad retirement
  • Teacher’s retirement
  • Miner’s benefits
  • Trade unions
  • Credit unions
  • Fraternal organizations
  • Public aid assistance — state, county, or city.

Social Security Survivors Benefits

Social Security is best known as a retirement program, but Social Security also includes survivor insurance. When a deceased worker has paid into Social Security, certain family members may be eligible for survivor insurance. To be eligible, the deceased worker must have credit for work covered by Social Security, ranging from one and one-half to ten years depending on the age at death.

The amount of benefits paid to survivors depends on the average lifetime earnings of the deceased worker. The higher the earnings, the greater the amount of benefits. However, a survivor’s earnings may reduce the amount he or she is entitled to under Social Security.

Monthly benefits
Eligible survivors include:

  • A widow or widower age 60 or older (50 if disabled), or at any age if caring for an entitled child who is under 16 or disabled.
  • A divorced widow or widower age 60 or older (50 if disabled) if the marriage lasted ten years, or if caring for an entitled child who is under 16 or disabled.
  • Unmarried children under age 18 and age 19 if they are attending a primary or secondary school full time; and under certain circumstances, benefits can be paid to stepchildren, grandchildren or adopted children.
  • Children who were disabled before reaching 22, as long as they remained disabled.
  • Dependent parent or parents 62 or older.

Lump-Sum Death Payment
A one time payment of $255 is paid in addition to the monthly cash benefits described above if the deceased worker has sufficient work credits. The lump-sum death payment is paid in the following priority order:

  1. A surviving spouse who lived in the same household as the deceased person at the time of death.
  2. A surviving spouse eligible for social security benefits on the deceased’s earnings record for the month of death.
  3. Children eligible for benefits for the month of death when there is no surviving spouse.

How to Apply
An application must be filed to receive survivor benefits. You may apply at any Social Security office or, if you wish, you may apply by telephone. Just call 1-800-772-1213. Information needed to apply for benefits includes:

  • Death certificate
  • Social security numbers — the deceased, the applicant, dependent children
  • Applicant’s birth certificate
  • Marriage certificate and divorce papers, as applicable
  • W-2 forms or federal self employment tax return for deceased worker for most recent year
  • Bank and account number for direct deposit of benefits.

If you are already receiving benefits as a husband or wife on your spouse’s record when she or he dies, immediately report the death to Social Security to have your payments changed to survivor benefits. If you are receiving benefits on your own work record, complete an application and Social Security will determine if you can receive more under survivor benefits.

More information is available by logging on to the Social Security Administration website at

Veterans’ Benefits

Veterans’ benefits are available to U.S. Armed Forces members who die on active duty. They are also available to those who were separated from active duty and completed the required period of service. Excluded are those who were dishonorably discharged or found guilty of a capital crime or subversive activities.

Eligibility extends to members of Reserve Components, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, Commissioned Officers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Commissioned Officers of the Public Health Service, and World War II Merchant Mariners. Spouses and dependent children of eligible living and deceased veterans and armed forces members may also be eligible.

Veteran’s benefits apply to both casketed remains and cremated remains, including:

  • Free burial grave in a national cemetery
  • Opening and closing of the grave and perpetual care
  • Free headstones and markers
  • Burial flag
  • Free grave liner for casketed remains
  • Presidential Memorial Certificate
  • Lump sum payment up to $300 to families of eligible retiree veterans and up to $1,500 for veterans who die of service-related disability.

Across the country, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ maintains 119 national cemeteries (with 6 more legally mandated) and 33 soldier’s lots and monument sites. Many states have established veterans cemeteries with eligibility requirements similar to national cemeteries. Requests for burial are usually submitted by the funeral director handling the funeral arrangements. The following information should be provided to the veterans’ cemetery.

  • Full name and military rank
  • Branch of service
  • Social security number
  • Service number
  • VA claim number, if applicable
  • Date and place of birth
  • Date and place of death
  • Date of retirement or last separation from active duty
  • Copy of military separation documents.

Some private cemeteries offer free gravesites for veterans. Be aware that restrictions may apply and there may be requirements to purchase an additional gravesite or a grave marker. The VA will provide a free headstone or marker for private cemetery burials, however, this benefit is limited to only eligible veterans and not to their spouses and children.

Under a Department of Defense program, funeral directors can request military funeral honors on behalf of veterans’ families. Veterans organizations oftentimes assist in providing military funeral honors.

For information on burial at sea, contact the United States Navy Mortuary Affairs office toll-free at 1-888-647-6676, and select option 4.

For additional information about veterans’ benefits, call the Veterans’ Affairs office at 800-827-1000 or log on to their website at

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