What are surviving spouse benefits and how do I become eligible to receive them?

If your spouse dies, you may be able to receive widow’s benefits. First, your spouse must have been eligible for retirement or receiving disability benefits. Second, you must meet a variety of additional requirements. You must meet one of the following conditions: 

•you were married to your spouse for nine months immediately before his/her death; 
•you were married for less than nine months and the death was accidental, or you were previously married for nine months; 
•you and your spouse had a natural child, or you adopted a child when the child was under the age of 18; or 
•in the month before your spouse’s death, you were entitled to or were receiving benefits based on your spouse’s earnings. 

If you meet one of the above conditions, then you must meet all of the following three requirements: 

•you are 60 years old, or 50 and disabled; 
•you are not receiving an entitlement equal or greater to the amount that your spouse received; and 
•you are unmarried. 

If you are also eligible for benefits based on your own record, you will receive the higher amount of benefits based on your record or benefits based on your spouse’s record, but not both. In addition, any income that you receive can decrease the amount of your benefits. 

You may be entitled to a lump-sum death payment. This is usually three times your spouse’s monthly benefits or $255, whichever is less. 

A note on Same Sex Couples: After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 that struck down a provision in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as between one man and one woman, the state of SSA spousal benefits for same sex couples is in flux. However, if you meet all of the other standards set forth by the SSA regarding benefits, you are encouraged to apply. By applying now, you set your application date which can in turn determine your start date for benefits once the legal issues surrounding same-sex couples are resolved on the national and state levels. 

For more information, see: 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(e), (f), (i) (2015); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.335, 404.338, 404.390-.392 (2015); Joan M. Krauskopf et al., Elderlaw: Advocacy for the Aging §§ 15.31-.34, 15.38 (2nd ed. 1993, 2011-2012 Supplement); Social Security Online, Survivors Planner, http://www.ssa.gov/planners/survivors/onyourown2.html (last visited June 4, 2015); Burks v. Apfel, 67 F.Supp.2d 1203 (1999), http://www.nclrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Post-DOMA_Social-Security.pdf. (Last visited on June 4, 2015).