In addition to SSD and SSI, which we have talked about, there are two other important disability programs under Social Security: Widow/Widower benefits and Disabled Adult Children.
Widow and widower benefits, are sometimes called “survivor” benefits. The short story is that both for retirement and disability purposes, widows and widowers can receive benefits on the earnings of their late spouse. If your spouse dies, and they earned more than you did during their lifetime, your benefit checks (when you retire or become disabled) would be higher if you could claim their earnings rather than your own.
For retirement, the process is straightforward. If you reach 60 and you are the widow(er), and your marriage lasted more than nine months, you are eligible. You can even receive benefits on the earnings of a deceased ex-spouse if your marriage lasted 10 years or more. However, you might have to share with another widow(er) if your ex remarried or was previously married for 10 years or longer.
Widows and widowers are also eligible to receive disability based upon the late spouse’s earnings. But the rules are different from retirement, and they can get a little complicated. To be eligible to receive disability payments based on a deceased spouse’s earnings, you must be over 50 years old, and you must become disabled within 7 years of the date that your spouse passed away or within 7 years of your deceased spouse’s child becoming 16, whichever is later. Alternatively, you can be eligible for survivor benefits at any time if you become disabled and you are taking care of your deceased spouse’s child who is under age 16.
To help clear this up, let’s take a fictional person named Mary Wilson. First, let’s suppose that Mary becomes disabled at age 54. Her husband Tom died 6 years earlier. Since Tom earned more, Mary wants to try and claim benefits off of his earnings record as a widow. Since it is less than 7 years between the date of Tom’s death and the date that Mary’s disability began, she can apply for widow benefits.
Keep in mind that if Mary were under 50 years of age when she became disabled – still assuming that her husband dies less than 7 years before her disability – she would not be eligible for widow benefits. For widow and widower benefits, you have to be at least 50. The reason that Congress made the rule that widows and widowers have to be at least 50 years old to collect off of their late spouse’s earnings is that they wanted to protect elderly widows and widowers, while at the same time encouraging young widows and widowers to remain part of the workforce.
Widow Benefits: An Interesting Case
One intriguing situation that comes up surprisingly frequently is a “deemed” widow. Some people are not recognized as being “legally” divorced, either because they never actually got divorced, or because they did not properly comply with the legalities (serving papers, etc.). If they remarry, the person they later marry is not “legally” their spouse, because they were never divorced in the first place. In Social Security, it becomes a matter of good faith. If somebody fails to get “legally” married because it turns out that the person they married was not “legally” divorced, they can be “deemed” a widow(er).
Let’s take an example of a case that really happened to one of my clients. My client thought she was married because she thought her husband was divorced. Her husband thought so too. He had filed papers, served his spouse, and they even agreed to the terms of the divorce. She promised she would return the divorce papers to the courthouse and get the judge to formally sever the marriage. He assumed that had happened. He complied with their alimony decree for many years, but it turned out she never filed the papers. Even though he had acted in good faith, he was not legally divorced so he could not legally remarry. My client lived with him as man and wife for 20 years until he died.
When he died, the first souse filed for benefits. She said that she had never been divorced, and therefore our client, Spouse Number 2, was not eligible to apply as his widow for Social Security. The first spouse would not have been “married” the requisite 10 years if the first marriage had been legally dissolved. (Remember, divorced widows must have been legally married for 10 years.) The husband thought he had been divorced after 6 years of marriage. In fact, legally, since the judge never signed the papers, they had never been divorced. He and Spouse Number 1 had been married for 26 years.
This was very unfair. Fortunately, the law allowed our client to be “deemed” a widow and to receive benefits. However, it was still unfair because even though she was “deemed” a widow and received some money, she should have received all of the eligible money, not just a portion.
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