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Social Security Widow Benefits: What You Need to Know

Social Security Widow Benefits: What You Need to Know

If you are concerned about your financial future in the wake of a spouse’s death, you’ll want to know about Social Security widow benefits. Also known as Social Security spousal survivor benefits, these funds help individuals supplement their income after their husband or wife passes away. For many people, Social Security widow and widower benefits are a vital lifeline during a very difficult time.

So, what are Social Security widow benefits? What kind of Social Security benefits do spouses get from each other? And finally, how can you apply for Social Security surviving spouse benefits? We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s look at how Social Security treats the spouse of a living Social Security beneficiary:

Social Security widow benefits

What benefits do I get from my spouse’s Social Security?

If your spouse is living and receiving Social Security, you may be entitled to up to half of his or her “primary insurance amount.” Your eligibility and the amount you receive will depend on your age and your spouse’s earnings. To qualify for this spousal benefit, you must be at least 62 years of age. 

For example, let’s say that your spouse began collecting Social Security at 65 and you are currently 62. Even if you don’t have the work experience to qualify for Social Security, you can get up to half of your spouse’s monthly Social Security payment based on their work history. However, if your spouse chooses to retire and begin collecting benefits early, your spousal benefit could be reduced by as much as 32.5%. This reduction in benefits is negated if you have a child that is 16 years or younger.

If you want to learn more about these Social Security spousal benefits, consult the Social Security Administration (SSA) website.

Social Security death benefits

What are Social Security widow benefits?

While spousal benefits are pretty straightforward while your spouse is living, it gets a little more complicated once they have passed. Generally, a worker must accumulate a certain number of work credits based on their age to qualify for Social Security. The same applies to people whose spouses have passed away. The younger the age of the deceased, the fewer work credits are required for the surviving spouse and any children to collect Social Security benefits. Regardless of age, no one requires more than 40 work credits to receive Social Security benefits.

When it comes to surviving spousal benefits, the work credit requirements are less stringent. In most cases, your spouse needs just 6 work credits (approximately 1.5 years of work) in the three years leading up to their death for you to receive benefits. This makes it easier for the spouse or children of the deceased to collect benefits.

Who qualifies for Social Security widow benefits?

Though the work credit requirements are reduced for deceased spouses, this doesn’t mean that every spouse of a deceased person will qualify for monthly benefits. You will need to meet one of the following criteria to collect Social Security survivor benefits:

  • A widow or widower who is at least 60 years old (50 years old if disabled)
  • A widow or widower who is caring for the deceased’s child (under 16 years of age or receiving disability benefits)
  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is either:
    • 18 years of age or younger
    • Disabled, with the disability occurring before the age of 22

In certain cases, individuals who do not meet the above criteria can still qualify. You will need to contact the SSA to see if your situation applies. That said, you can often receive Social Security survivor benefits if you are:

  • A child or grandchild of the deceased (including stepchildren, step-grandchildren, and adopted children)
  • A parent who depended on the deceased for at least half of their financial support

It’s important to note that remarriage does not affect your ability to receive Social Security widow benefits, as long as the remarriage occurred after you turned 60.

Can I get Social Security spousal benefits from a deceased ex-spouse?

In short, yes, you can get Social Security widow benefits through an ex-spouse in certain situations. You can get up to half the amount of your ex’s Social Security benefits while they are alive and up to 100% of their benefits once they are deceased. In addition to the criteria outlined above, you will also need to meet the following requirements:

  • You must have been married to your ex for at least 10 years
  • You must not be remarried before turning 60

Even if your ex had not yet applied for Social Security benefits, you can still get spousal benefits as long as they qualified and you have been divorced for at least two years. To learn more about ex-spouse benefits, consult the Social Security survivor’s benefits page.

How much do widow benefits provide?

The amount you receive will depend on a variety of factors. The SSA sets a limit on total family benefits that usually falls between 150-180% of the basic benefit rate. Though amounts will vary if multiple family members qualify, you can easily calculate your approximate benefits if you are the sole survivor to receive benefits. 

Since Social Security widow benefits pay up to 100% of the deceased’s benefits, you can calculate the amount using the same formula. For example, let’s say that your spouse had an average salary of $50,000 per year during their working life. Your benefits will likely look something like this:

SurvivorsMonthly Benefit
The deceased’s child$1,102.00
A spouse caring for the deceased’s child$1,102.00
A spouse at normal retirement age$1,469.00
Family maximum$2,501.80

You can also calculate your spousal benefits by creating a “My Social Security” account on the SSA website.

Can I collect my own Social Security and widow benefits at the same time?

In short, no. You cannot collect Social Security widow benefits and your own Social Security at the same time. If you have been collecting widow benefits, you can switch to your own Social Security when you turn 62. In any case, you will need to choose which benefits you want to use.

Social Security widow benefits

Apply for Social Security widow benefits

Though the requirements may be complex, the application process for widow benefits is relatively simple. That said, you can’t apply for these benefits online. You will either need to apply over the phone or at your local Social Security office. In either case, you will need to notify the SSA as soon as your spouse has passed.

Once the SSA has been notified, you can begin the application process. You will likely need to provide documentation like a death certificate, marriage certificate, proof of identity, and even W-2’s or tax returns. In any case, you can start the process by calling the SSA at 1-800-772-1213.

If you have more questions about your legal rights as a widow, check out our guide to free legal aid in all 50 states!

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