“I’m a Survivor” – sang Destiny’s Child

Social Security benefits for a surviving divorced spouse

Or, if you are from an earlier generation that still faces divorce, you might think instead of Donna Summer singing “I Will Survive.” The sentiment is the same no matter your age – that it’s not unusual to feel like you are fighting to survive when a marital relationship is over.

But survival takes on a different meaning of course when your ex-spouse passes away. Aside from the emotional and human reaction to an ex-husband’s or ex-wife’s death, for someone divorced, it might mean the end of alimony or child support payments.

Social Security may provide financial support for a surviving divorced spouse

If your ex-spouse dies and you were married at least 10 years (in most circumstances), you may be eligible for Social Security survivor’s payments on your ex’s earnings record. Basically, Social Security treats you like a widow or widower if you were in a marriage of this significant length of time. This reflects the reality that the economic circumstances of any marriage that lasts at least a decade probably will have a financial impact on the standards of living for the rest of the spouses’ lives.

Eligibility

To determine whether a surviving divorced spouse is eligible for monthly cash benefits based on their deceased former spouse’s earnings record, the Social Security Administration, called the SSA, applies a formula. SSA considers how many earnings credits the deceased worker earned as well as the deceased’s age at time of death.

Basically, the deceased could have earned up to four quarters of credit in every calendar year based on earnings. According to the SSA website, “[n]o … [worker] needs more than 40 credits (10 years of work) to be eligible for any Social Security benefit. But the younger a person is, the fewer credits they must have for family members to receive survivors benefits.”  

If a surviving divorced spouse cares for a biological or adopted child who is disabled or under age 16 of their deceased ex-spouse, they may be eligible even if the marriage lasted less than 10 years.

Same as widows or widowers benefits

Once eligibility based on length of marriage and work history is established, a surviving divorced spouse is eligible for survivors benefits the same as if they were a widow or widower. One basis of eligibility is disability. A surviving divorced spouse is eligible at age 50 or older if they meet the federal definition of disability and the disability began before or within seven years of the ex-spouse’s death. (Remarriage before age 50 would negate this eligibility and eligibility may be different if the person is both disabled and caring for a child of the deceased.)

Another basis for eligibility is age. At age 60 or older, the surviving divorced spouse is eligible for survivors benefits. This can be a complex decision that may vary depending on reductions to benefits based on age at the time of the claim as well as the surviving divorced spouse’s own work record. A sit-down meeting with a Social Security representative should be scheduled to discuss in detail the options available. (Remarriage before age 60 would negate this kind of eligibility.)

A surviving divorced spouse of any age is eligible if they care for the deceased’s child who is under 16 or disabled and the child receives survivors benefits based on the deceased parent’s work record, so long as the surviving divorced spouse has not remarried.

This is an introduction to a complex area of federal law. Individual circumstances may have an impact on eligibility not discussed here.

Any Floridian whose ex-spouse has passed away should make an appointment to sit down at a Social Security office to understand whether they are eligible for surviving divorced spouse benefits. An experienced attorney can assist with any questions or problems with an application or appeal.

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  • The Law Office of Daniel E. Forrest represents individuals in Fort Lauderdale in high-asset divorce matters. Daniel Forrest is board-certified family lawyer and mediator serving the South Florida area.
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