Your husband may be out of the picture, but his Social Security could still be a part of your life. Whether you’re widowed or divorced, U.S. law may allow you to collect benefits based upon your former spouse’s work history.

Although it’s best to contact a finance professional for guidance on your specific situation, just as you would with your income taxes, here’s an overview of who’s eligible and how much money you could get.

Social Security Benefits for Widows

Social Security benefits for widows are similar to those for married women with one significant exception: widows can apply for benefits as early as age 60. Disabled widows and widowers can start receive spousal benefits at age 50.

 
 

To be eligible to claim benefits, a widow or widower must meet the following criteria:

  • Be married to their spouse at the time of his or her death.
  • Be married for at least 9 months prior to the death, except in certain cases such as those involving an accident or other unforeseen event.
  • Be married to a person whose working history which would have entitled him or her to Social Security benefits.

However, widows and widowers cannot remarry before age 60 (or age 50 for those who are disabled), or they will lose the ability to claim survivor spousal benefits.

While you may be able to claim benefits early, keep in mind that doing so will permanently reduce the monthly amount you receive. The percentage can vary depending on what year you were born, but most widows who begin payments at age 60 will receive 71.5 percent of the full spousal benefit amount.

Although taking a reduced benefit may not be ideal, some people could find it helps them bridge the period from age 60 until when they can claim their own Social Security benefits. Widows who are eligible for their own Social Security benefits can switch to those at any time between ages 62-70. The longer they wait, the greater their benefit amount will be.

Social Security Benefits for Divorcees

Their ex-husbands may not be happy about it, but divorced women can also claim spousal benefits if they meet certain eligibility criteria.

These benefits are available even if the spouse has remarried, and a divorcee making a claim does not in any way affect her ex-spouse’s monthly benefits.

Divorcees are eligible to receive spousal benefits if all the following apply:

  • They were married to their ex-spouse for at least 10 years
  • They are unmarried
  • They are at least 62 years old
  • Their ex-spouse has a working history that makes him eligible for Social Security
  • The monthly spousal benefit is more than what they would receive if they filed for Social Security using their own work history

Eligible people are entitled to a benefit that is half their ex-spouse’s full retirement amount. However, as with early benefits for widows, you’ll get a reduced amount if you claim benefits at age 62 rather than waiting until your full retirement age, currently set at 66.

If you get remarried, you lose out on the spousal benefits from an ex-husband unless you end your later marriage.

You also don’t have to wait until your ex files for Social Security before you can begin benefits. So long as you have been divorced for two years, you can file for benefits once you and your ex both reach age 62.

Divorce and Death: Here’s What Happens When Both Occur

Of course, life is full of situations that don’t fall neatly into one category. Let’s say you are divorced and then your ex-husband dies. Can you still get Social Security benefits?

The answer, fortunately, is yes.

As with other divorced women, you must have been married at least 10 years to be eligible for these benefits. The only exception is if you have a child at home who is disabled or younger than age 16 and who is receiving survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work record. This exception applies to both natural children and those who are legally adopted.

Assuming you’re eligible, you can take early, reduced benefits at age 60, just as any other widow. In addition, you can get remarried after age 60 – or age 50 if you’re disabled – and not have it affect your spousal benefits.

Spousal benefits can be an important part of your overall retirement strategy and understanding your rights as a widow or divorcee is crucial. Death or divorce may have taken your husband, but his Social Security could support you for years to come.

Are you a widow or divorcee who has filed for spousal benefits from Social Security? Tell us your experience in the comments below.

Maryalene LaPonsieAfter 15 years of marriage, Maryalene LaPonsie lost her high school sweetheart and husband to cancer. Today, she maintains the site The Mighty Widow where she chronicles life after love and the challenges of parenting through grief. When not busy raising her and her late husband’s five children, Maryalene works as a personal finance writer and is a weekly contributor to U.S. News & World Report. You can connect with her on Pinterest, Instagram or Google+.

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