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Eligibility for Widow’s Benefits under the Social Security Act

Statistics show that about four million widows and widowers receive monthly Social Security benefits based on the earnings record of their deceased spouse. For many of these Widows or Widowers, but especially for women who may have been out of the workforce, these are benefits which provide funds crucial to paying for the essentials of daily living.

What types of benefits are covered by the Social Security Administration?

Widows and widowers who are not disabled can receive:

  • Reduced benefits as early as age 60 or, or if they are willing to wait until their full retirement age, full benefits.
  • If widows or widowers qualifies for retirement benefits on their own record, they can switch to their own retirement benefit as early as age 62.

What benefits are available for Disabled Widows or Widowers?

Disabled Widows and widowers can receive benefits as early as age 50, provided they are disabled AND their disability started before or within seven (7) years of the wage-earner’s death.

It is important to note that if a widow or widower is caring for the wage-earner’s minor child or children and is receiving Social Security benefits on behalf of the minor child or children, the seven-year period of time does not begin to run until those payments end. Thus, in a case where a wage-earner dies and there are minor children, the surviving spouse has an extended period of time, until benefits for the youngest child have stopped, plus an additional seven years, to establish eligibility for benefits as a disabled surviving spouse.

The surviving disabled spouse must attain the age of 50 within the 7-year window described above. If a disabled surviving spouse does not attain the age of fifty within seven years of the wage-earner’s death, and there are no minor children, no widow’s or widower’s benefits are available. Nonetheless, the disabled surviving spouse may qualify for disability benefits under their own earnings record.

What is the definition of disability used by the Social Security Administration in determining whether a surviving widow or widower is eligible for benefits as a disabled surviving spouse?

The Social Security Administration uses the same definition of disability for the surviving spouse of deceased wage-earners as the one used for disabled wage-earners. Although there are many regulations that precisely define disability, as that term is utilized for the Social Security Administration’s programs, there are three general concepts:

  • The individual is unable to do the work they performed before, as a result of a medically diagnosed condition(s);
  • The individual is unable to adjust to other full-time work because of the medically determined condition(s), including consideration of other vocational factors, such as the individual’s age, education and work experience; and
  • The individual’s inability to work has either lasted, or is expected to last, for at least 12 consecutive months, or result in the individual’s death.

The Social Security Administration’s definition of disability is strict. There are no benefits payable for partial disability. If all of the criteria are not met, no benefits are paid.

How much is the Widows or Widower’s benefit?

The amount the surviving spouse is eligible to receive, as survivor’s benefits, depends on the average lifetime earnings of the deceased wage-earner. The higher the earnings were, the higher the benefits are for the surviving spouse:

  • If the surviving spouse is of full retirement age or older, the benefit amount is 100 % of the deceased wage-earner’s benefit amount.
    For a surviving spouse between the ages of 60 to full retirement age, the benefit ranges from 71 1/2 % up to 99 percent of the full retirement benefit amount.
  • For disabled widows or widowers who are between the ages of 50 through age 59, the benefit amount is 711/2 percent of the wage-earner’s benefit amount.
  • For a widow or widower of any age that is caring for a child under the age of 16, the benefit amount is 75% of the wage-earner’s benefit amount.

Other factors that affect eligibility:

If a disabled widow or widower remarries before reaching the age of 60, they cannot receive benefits as a surviving spouse while they’re married.

If the widow or widower, either disabled or not, remarries after attaining the age of 60, the marriage does not disqualify them from continuing to receive benefits on the earnings record of the deceased wage-earner.

Widows, widowers, and surviving divorced spouses cannot apply online for survivors’ benefits. They should contact the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) to request a telephone appointment.

If applying for disability benefits on a deceased worker’s record, the application process will go faster an Adult Disability Report, form SSA-3368-BK is prepared in advance. This report should be readily available at the time of their appointment, and can be downloaded by clicking on this link: SSA-3368-BK Adult Disability Report