Social Security Benefits for Widows and Divorcees

As a woman, you are probably aware that you are statistically expected to outlive your husband. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2015 mortality report, the average woman in the United States will live 81.2 years, and the average man will live 76.3 years. That means you can expect to live longer during your retirement years. And since you may be single for several of those years, it is important to evaluate what your income situation will be. Planning ahead of time is paramount to being able to live financially securely during your retirement years—especially once you are living on just one income. What sources of income will you have? How will those change if you become divorced or widowed?

Most people know they need to contribute to a 401(k), IRA, and have some extra money in savings to supplement their Social Security. But did you know that Social Security benefits are not guaranteed? This has nothing to do with the solvency of the federal government’s Social Security fund or potential increase in retirement age, but rather your actual ability to collect the benefit. Many people don’t realize that each individual must qualify to receive Social Security benefits. So just because your husband qualifies for Social Security benefits does not mean you do—and should you find yourself divorced or widowed, you will need to qualify to receive those benefits on your own merit.

Do You Have Enough Credits to Be Eligible for Social Security Benefits? 

Did you know you need at least 40 credits to qualify for retirement benefits from Social Security? Even if your husband was the primary wage earner, you still might need to qualify individually. Each year you can earn one credit for every $1300 of earnings, up to four credits per year. Why is this important? Because if you have been a homemaker for the last 35 years and you find that you are single in retirement due to divorce, you may not qualify for Social Security benefits the same way a surviving spouse does.

 Benefits if You Are a Surviving Spouse 

  • If your spouse has passed away, you may be able to get full benefits at full retirement age, even if you don’t have 40 credits. The full retirement age for survivors is 66 for people born in 1945-1956, and the full retirement age will steadily increase to age 67 for people born in 1962 or later; however, you can get reduced benefits as early as age 60. If you are a surviving spouse and are disabled, benefits can begin as early as age 50. (For related reading, see: How Social Security Survivor Benefits Work.)
  • If you and your deceased spouse have a child  who is younger than age 16, is disabled, or receiving Social Security benefits, you can receive benefits at any age if you are taking care of that child. 
  • If you’re already getting benefits when your husband dies, you should still contact Social Security. Whether your current benefit is based on your spouse’s work or your work, you may qualify for a higher benefit as a widow. 

Benefits if You Are a Surviving Divorced Spouse

  • Even if you’ve been divorced, you can get benefits at age 60 or older (50-59 if disabled) if your marriage lasted at least 10 years.

Benefits if You Get Remarried

  • Typically, you won’t be able to get widow’s benefits if you remarry before age 60. However, if you get remarried after age 60, age 50 if you’re disabled, it won’t prevent you from getting benefit payments based on your former husband. If you are older than age 62, you can get benefits based on your new spouse if those benefits would be higher. (For related reading, see: How Divorce Affects Social Security Benefits.)

How to Apply for Social Security Benefits

If you’re not currently getting Social Security benefits, apply for survivor benefits immediately because, for some claims, benefits are paid from the time you apply and not from the time your spouse died. You can apply via telephone or in person at your local Social Security office. Here are the documents that you should have available:

  • Proof of death—from the funeral home or death certificate
  • Your Social Security number, and your spouse’s SSN
  • Your birth certificate
  • Your marriage certificate, if your spouse has passed away
  • Your divorce papers, if applicable
  • Dependent children’s Social Security numbers and birth certificates, if applicable
  • Your deceased spouse’s W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return for the most recent year
  • The name of your bank and your account number so your benefits can be deposited directly into your account. 

(For more from this author, see: 7 Financial Tips for Women Preparing for Divorce.)


Securities and Investment Advisory Services are offered through Signator Investors, Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Advisor. AspenCross Wealth Management is independent of Signator Investors, Inc. 1400 Computer Drive, Westborough, MA  01581