Social Security for Spouses: Current, Divorced, Widowed and Disabled

As a concept, Social Security is fairly simple. In practice, the rules and regulations that govern it can turn an otherwise sharp mind to mush. This is especially true when you add in factors such as two incomes, divorce and widowhood.

With the help of Dorothy Clark, a 40-year veteran of the Social Security administration, here are the answers to questions recently raised by  readers. (NOTE: some questions have been combined)

Hi, Gail,

I’m divorced. Do I have to wait for my ex to file for Social Security in order to file for benefits based on his record?


Dear Carol,

You (and every other “ex” your husband might have) are eligible to receive up to 50% of the benefit he has earned. However, you must meet all of the following conditions:

  • Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer;
  • You are currently unmarried;
  • You are age 62 or older;
  • Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits;
  • The Social Security benefit you are entitled to based on your own work history is less than the amount you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s record.

If your ex-spouse has not applied for retirement benefits, but is eligible for them, you can still qualify for benefits based on his earnings provided you have been divorced for at least two years. Keep in mind that whether you apply for Social Security benefits as a current, divorced, or widowed spouse, if you have not reached your full retirement age when you file, you will receive a reduced amount.

Click here for more information about divorced spouse benefits:

Dear Gail,

I’m 64 and a retired public school teacher. My husband and I were married for 13 years, but we’ve been divorced for twice that long. Under the system in California, I didn’t have to contribute to Social Security because we are covered by the public pension system. Am I still eligible for a divorced spouse benefit based on the fact that my former husband worked in the private sector and paid into Social Security his entire career? Will my check be reduced because I didn’t pay into Social Security myself?



Dear Jeannette,

As a spouse, you don’t have to personally contribute to Social Security in order to receive a spousal benefit from Social Security (otherwise there would be no benefit for a stay-at-home mom/dad). You are only required to meet the conditions listed in my response to the previous question. Clearly, you meet the first four.

When you receive a pension for work not covered by Social Security- such as a job in local, state or federal government- the amount you are eligible to collect from Social Security is reduced. In the case of benefits paid to a dependent, such as a spouse, divorced spouse or a widow, the reduction is called the Government Pension Offset (GPO).(1)

Under this provision, your benefit from Social Security is reduced by two-thirds of the amount of your civil service pension. For example, assume that your monthly teacher’s pension is $900. Your offset is two-thirds of that, or $600. Now, let’s say you are eligible for a divorced spouse benefit of $800 based upon the work history of your former husband. When you subtract the offset from this amount ($800-$600), you find that your monthly benefit from Social Security will be $200. Note that if the offset is larger than your divorced spouse or the widow’s benefit, you will receive nothing from Social Security.

According to Dorothy Clark, a senior press officer in Social Security’s Baltimore headquarters, “There are some instances when GPO will not apply.”  For more information the about the Government Pension Offset click here. Be sure to check out the section entitled When Won’t My Social Security Benefits Be Reduced.

Dear Gail,

My husband and I were only married a year and a half when he died of cancer. It was the second marriage for both of us. Social Security told me that I’m not entitled to a widow’s benefit because I’m still working and earning about $130,000/year.

This doesn’t seem right.



Dear Natalie,

Unfortunately, this is correct. The length of your marriage is not the issue here. You only need to be married nine months to be eligible for a widow or widower’s benefit. However, because you are under your full retirement age, you are subject to an “earnings test” due to the income you earn from your job.

According to Clark, the earnings test applies to any non-disabled individual who is less than full retirement age and working. This includes the worker him/herself, current spouse, widow(er), divorced spouse, child, etc. If you earn more than a certain amount, Social Security withholds $1 for every $2 in excess of the annual limit. This year’s limit is $14,640.(2)

In your case, your income exceeds the earnings limit by $115,360. Thus, the amount that Social Security would withhold from your annual widow’s benefit is half that amount, or $57,630. This amount more than wipes out whatever your widow’s benefit might be because the highest Social Security benefit anyone is eligible to receive this year is roughly $30,000.

However, once you reach your Full Retirement Age (either 66 or 67) there is no longer an earnings test. If you file for Social Security at that point, you will receive either your full widow’s benefit (based upon the work history of your deceased husband) or the benefit you have earned yourself from the years you spent in the workforce.  You will not receive both amounts. Instead, you will receive whichever one is higher.

You’ll find more information about the annual earnings test here.

Dear Gail,

My wife and I divorced in July 2010 after a 35 year marriage. She is 59, completely disabled and currently living in an assisted-living facility.  We were told by Social Security that she doesn’t qualify for disability benefits because she didn’t work during the past 10 years (she couldn’t). I still care about her and would like to see her receive any financial help she’s entitled to.

If she can’t get disability, is she at least entitled to a divorced spouse benefit based on my record? Does it matter that I’m still working?



Dear Dave,

“In order to receive disability benefits you have to have a current work connection,” says to Clark. This means that you must have held a job for a minimum amount of time prior to the point at which you were disabled. The length of time depends upon the age at the which you became disabled.

For example, if you are disabled at age 31 or later, you must have worked for five years out of the 10-year period ending with the quarter your disability began. This link will take you to a page with more information.

However, while your wife is not eligible for “disability” payments, she might qualify for something called Supplemental Security Income (SSI). According to Clark, this program, which is also administered by Social Security Administration, provides income to individuals “with low income and limited resources who are blind or disabled at any age.” Here’s a link to find out more about SSI.

In addition, three years from now when your former wife turns 62, she can file for divorced spouse benefits under Social Security. She simply has to meet the same the eligibility requirements for any divorced spouse (see the answer to question No.1). Keep in mind that if your ex-wife starts receiving a divorced spouse benefit before reaching her Full Retirement Age (66), the amount will be reduced.

Since you are still working and have not applied for Social Security benefits yourself, the amount of the spousal benefit will be “subject to deductions” until the two of you have been divorced for at least two years.

1. If you are applying for benefits based upon your own work record- perhaps because part of your career you worked in a job where you paid Social Security tax, but held another job where you did not (such as a state or local government position)- the reduction in your Social Security benefit is based upon a different law called The Windfall Elimination Provision. Find out more here.

2. In the year in which you reach your FRA, there is a different earnings limit. This year it’s $38,880. If your income for the months up to but not including the month in which you reach your FRA exceeds this amount, Social Security withholds $1 out of every $3 above the limit.

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist and an instructor in Franklin Templeton Investments' global Academy. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content.