Who Qualifies for Social Security Widow's Benefits?

by Herb Kirchhoff

    When a person who has paid Social Security taxes throughout his working life dies, the surviving spouse may be eligible for a Social Security widow’s benefit. As of 2012, according to the AARP, there were about 5 million widows and widowers receiving monthly survivor benefits based on the earnings of their deceased spouses.

    For you to qualify for Social Security widow or widower benefits, your deceased spouse must have earned the required amount of Social Security work credits. In general, this means the deceased spouse must have paid Social Security taxes into the system for 40 "credits," or 10 years. However, if the widow or widower is caring for the deceased's children, the survivors can receive benefits if the deceased worked at least six credits in the three years before he passed away.

    Widows and widowers who have reached full retirement age can receive 100 percent of their deceased spouse’s benefit. A widowed spouse who is disabled can receive a partial benefit as early as age 50 if disabled, or age 60 if not disabled. A surviving spouse who is under full retirement age will receive anywhere from 71.5 percent to 99 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit, depending on age at application.

    A widowed spouse can receive a survivor benefit at any age if he or she is taking care of the deceased spouse’s child under the age of 16 or disabled child of any age. The widowed spouse caring for the child will receive 75 percent of the deceased spouse’s benefit, in addition to the child's benefit.

    If you are divorced and your ex-spouse dies, you can claim a widow/widower benefit if your marriage lasted more than 10 years and you are at least age 50 if disabled or age 60 if you are not disabled. If you are widowed or divorced and you remarry before you are old enough to claim a widow/widower benefit, you lose this survivor benefit. If you remarry after age 50 if disabled or age 60 if not disabled, the remarriage will not affect your survivor’s benefit. When you turn age 62, you can opt for benefits based on your new spouse’s work record, if they would be higher.

    You can still qualify for a widow/widower benefit even if you were already receiving Social Security benefits based on your own work at the time your spouse died. You can claim the greater of your own benefit or your survivor’s benefit. If you started collecting a widow/widower benefit before age 62, you can choose the greater of your own benefit from work or your survivor’s benefit any time after you turn 62. You will need to apply to Social Security to switch between your own benefit and your survivor’s benefit.

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    About the Author

    Herbert Kirchhoff has over 35 years experience as a newspaper and newsletter reporter, writer and editor, with 27 of those years spent on telecommunications industry policy issues. Kirchhoff has a B.A. in journalism from Rider University in New Jersey and has been published in the "Trenton (N.J.) Times" and in "Communications Daily" and State Telephone Regulation Report, Washington, D.C.

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