Ideally, you and your spouse would spend a long, rich life together, but sometimes that’s not the case, and widows or widowers are left sorting through a deceased partner’s estate much earlier than expected. While Social Security survivor’s benefits don’t instantly transfer to you when you sign your marriage license, most surviving spouses won’t need to worry about qualifying for survivor benefits.
In most circumstances, you must be married to the deceased person for at least nine months to qualify for widow’s benefits based on your spouse's Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration waives the nine-month requirement if you’re the parent of the deceased worker’s biological child, you adopted your spouse’s child while you were married, or he adopted your child. Additionally, if deceased spouse’s death was accidental, not caused by a medical issue, you can qualify for survivor benefits immediately.
A few less common exceptions to the Social Security Administration’s nine-month marriage requirement may also apply to some widowers. If you were previously married to your spouse, were divorced and then remarried, you may qualify as long as your original marriage lasted at least nine months. If your spouse was married to an institutionalized partner and barred from divorcing him by state law, then married you within 60 days of the institutionalized partner’s death, you also immediately qualify for benefits.
Divorced Spouse Benefits
If you divorced a spouse, you could still qualify to receive widow's benefits when he dies. To qualify for survivor benefits as a divorced spouse, your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years. You must also be unmarried, and you won’t begin drawing benefits until you turn 62. Because you can only claim survivor benefits if you waive your own retirement pension, your benefit must be less than your divorced spouse’s in order to qualify.
Survivor Benefit Amounts
If you claim a deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits as a survivor, you’re generally entitled to all of her benefit if you wait until you reach retirement age. Retirement age is 67 for anyone born in 1960 or later, and between 65 and 67 for those born earlier, depending upon the year you were born. You may retire as early as age 62 and claim early benefits, but the amount of your benefit may be reduced as much as 29 percent if you claim early. The longer you wait to claim the benefit, the more you’ll receive, until you reach retirement age, at which time you’re entitled the full benefit.
Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.