There are approximately four million individuals receiving monthly Social Security benefits based on their deceased spouse’s earnings record. These come in the form of survivors’ benefits, which provide the majority of annual income for many of the recipients.
There’s no question that survivors’ benefits are an important lifeline that the Social Security Administration provides to widows and widowers who no longer have a spouse who can help manage household expenses.
Unfortunately, there are cases where a widow or widower is told that they are not eligible for these critical survivors’ benefits because they did not meet the core requirement for eligibility.
There is a strict rule that says in order to receive survivors’ benefits, individuals must meet a marriage length requirement. Social Security requires that your marriage lasted at least 9 months to qualify for benefits.
While this rule is fairly strict, there are numerous exceptions for individuals who lose a spouse after a marriage that lasted less than 9 months. Here’s what you need to know.
How Survivors’ Benefits Typically Work
Normally, you can qualify for a survivors’ benefit as the surviving spouse beginning at age 60. If you are the surviving spouse and also disabled, you may qualify for benefits starting at 50.
Surviving spouses of any age who care for the deceased’s child who is under the age of 16 (or any age if the child is disabled) can also receive survivors’ benefits from the Social Security program.
Finally, even former spouses of a deceased individual can receive survivors’ benefits starting at age 60, if that previous marriage lasted at least 10 years.
For a full explanation of the Social Security survivors’ benefits, I encourage you to read my article Social Security Survivor Benefits: The Complete Guide. But for now, let’s move on to look at how the Social Security Administration defines surviving spouses, as it’s another important component to understand if you want to know how these benefits work… and what the exceptions to the rules look like.
How the Social Security Administration Defines Windows and Widowers for Survivors’ Benefits
The first requirement for survivors’ benefits eligibility is to be considered the widow or widower of a deceased individual. In most cases, this simply means that you were the legal spouse of the deceased.
But the SSA’s definition of “spouse” extends beyond the bounds of a “legal” spouse. In their manual, they define “spouse” as follows:
The claimant is the widow(er) of a deceased NH if he or she was related to the NH as the NH’s legal spouse, putative spouse, or deemed spouse. The criteria for:
- Legal spouse – the claimant was considered validly married to the NH under the laws of the State of the domicile at the time of the NH’s death. For proof of a valid marriage, see GN 00305.020; or
- Putative spouse – the claimant has the same rights as a widow(er) to share in the distribution of the NH’s intestate personal property under the laws of the State of the NH’s domicile at the time of the NH’s death. For proof of a putative marriage, see GN 00305.085; or
- Deemed spouse – (beginning 09/1960) the claimant went through a marriage ceremony with the NH in good faith resulting in a marriage that would have been valid except for a legal impediment. For proof of a deemed marriage, see GN 00305.055B.3.
Establishing that you meet the core requirement to be considered the spouse of the deceased is only the first step. Next, you have to either prove that your marriage met the length requirement and lasted 9 months or more – or you need to qualify for one of the exceptions.
The Exceptions to the 9 Month Duration of Marriage Requirement
The usual length of marriage requirement is straightforward: if your legal union lasted at least 9 months before your spouse passed, you probably qualify for survivors’ benefits.
If your marriage did not last that long, that doesn’t mean you can’t receive survivors’ benefits. But you do need to meet one of the exceptions to this length of marriage requirement.
These exceptions include situations in which:
- The death was a result of an accident, or
- The death occurred in the line of duty while he/she was a member of a uniformed service, serving on active duty, or
- Are the mother or father of the deceased person’s child
- Legally adopted the deceased person’s child (while married and the child was under the age of 18)
- Are the mother or father of a child who was legally adopted by the deceased person (while married and the child was under the age of 18)
- Were married to the deceased person when you both legally adopted a child under the age of 18, or
- You were entitled to ( or if you were old enough to apply, could have been entitled to), any of these benefits in the month before you were married to the deceased individual:
- Spousal benefits
- Survivor benefits
- Father and mother’s benefits
- Parent’s benefits
- Childhood disability benefits
- Certain railroad retirement benefits, or
- You were married for at least 9 months before divorcing, as long as you eventually remarried the deceased individual before their death (assuming the deceased person could not have reasonably been expected to live 9 months when you were remarried), or
- The deceased person was previously married and their prior spouse was institutionalized due to mental incompetence or similar incapacity. While that spouse was institutionalized, the deceased spouse would have divorced the previous spouse and married you, but the deceased person could not do as because a divorce would have been unlawful due to the institutionalization of the first spouse under the laws of the State where the deceased person lived at the time. That spouse would have needed to remain institutionalized up to the time of his or her death, at which point you married the now-deceased person within 60 days after the institutionalized person’s death.
If you meet just one of the qualifications listed, the 9 month length-of-marriage rule may not apply.
What About A Divorced Spouse?
In order to qualify for survivors benefits, a divorced spouse must meet a 10-year duration of marriage requirement. The exceptions to the 9-month duration of marriage requirement do not extend to a divorced spouse.
How to Prove You Meet an Exception to the Length of Marriage Requirements Around Survivors’ Benefits
If you believe that you meet one of these exceptions, and are still told that you do not qualify due to lack of marriage duration, I’d encourage you to carefully read the applicable Social Security manual sections and even share them with the Social Security claims representative who is assisting you:
RS 00207.001 Widow(er)’s Benefits Definitions and Requirements
GN 00305.100 Marital Relationship Duration
If you still can’t make headway, I’d encourage you to become familiar with the hierarchy at your Social Security Administration office. If you are persistent, you’ll either get the benefit you need or a great explanation of why you are not entitled. Don’t accept anything less.
Next Steps for Answers
If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too.
You should also visit Jim Blankenship’s fantastic website. He helped me make sense of some of these rules for this article and breaks down lots of complicated topics on his website.
And don’t leave without getting your FREE copy of my Ultimate Social Security Cheat Sheet. This has all the numbers, limits, and rules that apply to many situations and it’s all condensed down to just one page. Click HERE to get yours today.