As of June 2016, approximately 10 percent of all Social Security retirement, survivors and disability monthly benefits are paid as survivors benefits, representing about 6,060,000 people of all ages across the nation.
Breaking this down further, about 6.2 percent (3,766,000 people) of Social Security benefits are received by widows and widowers based on age and about 3.1 percent (3,100,000 people) by children of deceased workers. June 2016 data showing these percentages is here. The link automatically shows monthly updates.
The original Social Security Act of 1935 created only retirement benefits for the individual worker. Legislation creating Social Security monthly benefits for family members, as well as the broad categories of survivors and disability benefits, waited for the future.
The history section of the Social Security website, www.socialsecurity.gov, has an interesting public information poster from the period 1937-1939. Shown below, the poster announced that during this time Social Security paid lump-sum benefits to the estates of covered workers who died before attaining age 65. This type of benefit was discontinued by the 1939 Social Security Amendments and replaced by the much more valuable survivors benefits program.
Survivors benefits were created with the Social Security Amendments of 1939, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 10, 1939.
The 1939 Amendments fundamentally changed the Social Security program by creating two new benefit categories: payments to the spouse and minor children of a retired worker and survivors benefits paid to the family in the event of the death of a covered worker.
This change transformed Social Security from a retirement program only for individual workers into the family-based economic security program we have today.
When the first monthly payment of Social Security benefits started in January 1940, family and survivor benefits were included.
Reflecting the times, below is a 1939 Social Security poster announcing passage of the 1939 Amendments.