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Social Security and You: Questions about widow, ex-spouse benefits
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Social Security and You: Questions about widow, ex-spouse benefits

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Q: I understand paying benefits to widows. But I don’t understand paying benefits to divorcees. A woman who is divorced is not a widow. She is an ex-wife. So why does she have a claim to her ex-husband’s Social Security?

A: When Social Security first started, the program did not pay benefits to divorced women. But that led to unfair situations. Consider this not uncommon scenario. Bill and Rita were married for 35 years. Rita spent much of her married life as a wife, mother and homemaker — just the way Bill wanted it. As they are pushing their 60s, Bill started flirting with one of his younger co-workers, Connie. Bill eventually dumped old, reliable Rita and moved in with cute and cuddly Connie.

Under original Social Security law, poor Rita was left out in the cold with nothing when it came time for Social Security. That’s why Congress changed the law to say that a divorced woman had a claim on her ex-husband’s Social Security.

The first law they wrote for divorcees said that a woman had to be married for at least 20 years to qualify for benefits from the ex. But many women said that 10 years of life with a philandering fool was enough. That’s why advocacy groups got on the bandwagon and lobbied Congress to change the law so that women could get benefits from an ex-husband as long as the marriage had lasted at least a decade.

So, in a nutshell, here are the rules for divorcees. A woman can get benefits from her ex-husband’s Social Security record if:

  • He is at least age 62 (he doesn’t have to actually be getting Social Security himself).
  • She is at least age 62 and not working (or working and earning less than about $16,000 per year).
  • The marriage lasted at least 10 years.
  • She isn’t currently married.
  • She isn’t due higher benefits on her own Social Security record.

If her ex-husband is deceased, essentially the same eligibility rules would apply, except that she could get benefits as early as 60.

By the way, you are right when you said that a woman whose ex-husband dies is technically not his widow. And Social Security law recognizes that, too. So the legal term used to describe a woman in this situation is a “surviving divorced wife,” and the Social Security checks she would qualify for are called “surviving divorced wife’s benefits.” But I find that term a bit awkward. So I just call a woman whose ex-husband has died a “divorced widow.”

Q: I am a single woman who just turned 66. I am still working full time. I was going to put off signing up for my Social Security until age 70 in order to get the delayed retirement bonus. But something you wrote awhile back about women possibly getting benefits from a long-ago deceased husband intrigued me. I was married once, and that marriage lasted just shy of 20 years. The divorce occurred in 1996. He remarried. I never did. He died about 10 years ago. I have no idea if the woman he was married to when he died is getting any widow’s benefits. But do I have any kind of claim on my ex-husband’s Social Security record?

A: You certainly do. Because you were married to him at least 10 years and you are not currently married, you are eligible for divorced widow’s benefits. Even though you are still working full time, you can claim those benefits because you are over age 66.

And you qualify for the same benefit incentive available to any widow. And that incentive says you can take your widow’s benefit now, and save your own benefits until age 70, when you can switch to your own retirement benefits and get the delayed retirement bonus you mentioned — which, by the way, is a 32 percent increase tacked on to your monthly retirement checks.

And one final point: It makes no difference if his second wife is getting benefits on his Social Security account. Anything payable to you is an add-on benefit.

Q: Last year, my 59-year-old mother was getting a Social Security disability check in the amount of $800. Then my father died right after her 60th birthday. He was getting $2,500. So she filed for widow’s benefits. I know that at age 60, she should have gotten 70 percent of his benefit, or $1,750. So to our way of thinking, she should be getting $2,550 per month ($1,750 plus $800 = $2,550.) But she is only getting $1,750 per month. Can you explain this?

A: I’m pretty sure I can explain. But because I don’t know all the facts about your mom’s case, you really should talk to someone at your local Social Security office about this.

The basic answer to your question is this: As a general rule, whenever you are due two Social Security benefits, you don’t get them both. You get the one that pays the higher rate — or you get a combination of benefits that cannot exceed the higher benefit you are due.

When your dad died, your mom had a couple of choices. She could have opted to save her widow’s benefits until age 66. If she had been able to get by on her $800 per month disability check for a few years more, at age 66 she could have switched to a full widow’s benefit, or in her case, $2,500 per month. Actually, she would have received her own $800 benefit, and then also been paid a widow’s check for $1,700.

But your mom opted to take reduced widow’s benefits when your dad died. You are right that at age 60, she would be due 70 percent of his full benefit, or $1,750. So following that general rule I mentioned, she should be getting her own $800 disability check and a widow’s check for $950, for a total of $1,750.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at

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