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Can my deceased husband’s ex wife collect his Social Security?

When a person passes away, their Social Security benefits may be available to certain surviving family members including a current spouse, ex-spouse, or dependent children. However, the rules regarding Social Security survivor benefits can be complicated and depend on several factors. This article will provide an overview of how Social Security benefits are distributed after someone dies and specifically examine whether a deceased person’s ex-wife can collect their Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

Social Security Survivor Benefits Overview

Social Security pays survivor benefits to certain family members of a deceased worker who was eligible for Social Security. Upon the death of a worker, a one-time death payment of $255 is paid to the surviving spouse if they lived with the worker. Ongoing monthly survivor benefits may also be paid to the following surviving relatives if certain criteria are met:

  • Widow or Widower (including divorced spouses)
  • Children
  • Dependent Parents

The amount of the survivor benefit paid is based on the deceased worker’s basic Social Security benefit. A widow or widower may receive up to 100% of the worker’s benefit depending on the widow’s age. Children can receive up to 75% of the deceased parent’s benefit. Dependent parents can receive up to 82% of the deceased worker’s benefit.

Some key criteria must be met for a surviving relative to collect Social Security survivor benefits:

  • The deceased worker must have earned enough work credits during their lifetime to qualify for Social Security benefits. In 2023, a worker needs 40 credits (10 years of work) to qualify.
  • The surviving family member must be able to prove their relationship to the deceased worker (marriage certificate, birth certificate etc.)
  • The widow or widower must be at least 60 years old to collect full benefits as a surviving spouse. Disabled widows can collect as early as age 50.
  • A divorced widow or widower must have been married to the worker for at least 10 years to collect benefits.
  • Dependent children can collect up until age 18 (19 if still in high school). Disabled children can continue receiving benefits.

It’s important to contact the Social Security Administration and file for survivor benefits as soon as possible after a spouse or parent dies. Benefits are generally paid starting in the month the worker died if filed for in a timely manner. Retroactive benefits may be limited if application is delayed more than 6 months.

Can an Ex-Wife Collect Benefits?

Whether an ex-wife can collect Social Security survivor benefits from her deceased ex-husband’s work record depends primarily on two factors:

Length of Marriage

To qualify for survivor benefits, an ex-wife must have been married to the deceased worker for at least 10 years immediately before the divorce became final. Even if the marriage lasted 9 years and 11 months, she would not meet the length of marriage requirement to collect as a surviving divorced spouse.

Marital Status

In addition to meeting the 10 year marriage rule, the ex-wife must be currently unmarried. If she has remarried after divorcing the former spouse who died, she is not eligible for survivor benefits under her ex-spouse. However, if that second marriage ended (whether by death, divorce or annulment), the ex-wife may then be able to collect survivor benefits from the first husband.

Essentially, an ex-wife is treated the same as a widow when it comes to eligibility for survivor benefits. But she must meet both the 10 year marriage rule and not have remarried before being able to collect benefits from her ex-husband’s record after his death.

Example Scenarios

Here are some examples to illustrate whether an ex-wife can receive benefits based on different marriage and marital scenarios:

Married 12 years, Divorced, Ex-Husband Dies

In this case, since the marriage lasted more than 10 years, the ex-wife would qualify for survivor benefits on her ex-husband’s record when he passes away. Since she’s divorced and unmarried at the time of his death, she meets both required criteria.

Married 9 years, Divorced, Ex-Husband Dies

Because the marriage did not reach the 10 year threshold before divorce, the ex-wife would not be eligible for any survivor benefits in this scenario.

Married 15 years, Divorced, Ex-Wife Remarries, Ex-Husband Dies

Even though the first marriage exceeded 10 years, the fact that the ex-wife remarried after the divorce means she does not qualify for survivor benefits. Her remarriage nullified her eligibility to collect as a surviving divorced spouse.

Married 12 years, Divorced, Ex-Wife Remarries then Divorces, Ex-Husband Dies

In this case, the ex-wife’s eligibility is reinstated when her second marriage ends. Because she is unmarried again at the time her first ex-husband dies, she meets both criteria to collect survivor benefits from his record.

Other Benefits for Divorced Spouses

In addition to survivor benefits, there are two other types of Social Security benefits that a divorced spouse may be eligible for:

Spousal Benefits

An ex-wife may be eligible for spousal benefits based on her ex-husband’s work record while he is still alive. To qualify, the couple must have been married for at least 10 years, and both ex-spouses must now be at least 62 years old. Unlike survivor benefits, the ex-wife can collect spousal benefits even if she remarries as long as her second marriage occurred after age 60. However, if she remarries before 60, she forfeits rights to collect spousal benefits.

Divorced Widow Benefits

In some cases, a surviving divorced spouse who remarries after age 60 may still be able to collect survivor benefits if the second marriage ends. This is known as divorced widow benefits. The surviving divorced spouse must have been married to the second spouse for at least 10 years to qualify for these special benefits.

Calculating the Benefit Amount

If an ex-wife meets all the requirements to collect Social Security survivor benefits on her former husband’s record, the amount she receives will depend on a couple factors:

  • The age at which she claims benefits
  • Whether the ex-husband claimed benefits before his death

A surviving ex-spouse can receive 100% of the deceased worker’s basic benefit once she reaches full retirement age. Full retirement age ranges from 66 to 67 depending on birth year. If benefits are claimed earlier, between age 60 and full retirement, the amount is reduced.

However, the survivor benefit cannot exceed what the worker was receiving at the time of death. So if the ex-husband claimed benefits before his full retirement age and was receiving a reduced benefit, the survivor benefit is limited to that amount. The ex-wife does not qualify for any delayed retirement credits the ex-husband may have earned if he worked past full retirement.

Application Process

Applying for Social Security survivor benefits as a surviving divorced spouse involves gathering the necessary documents and submitting an application. Here are the steps:

  1. Locate certified copies of your marriage and divorce certificates. These must be obtained from the state or county where the events occurred.
  2. Have the deceased worker’s Social Security number available.
  3. If applying for benefits for dependent children, have birth certificates or adoption papers ready.
  4. Submit the Social Security survivor benefits application. This can be done online, by phone, or in-person at a local SSA office.
  5. Provide any other requested proofs of age, relationship status, or income.

The SSA will review your application and verify your eligibility based on your marital history and age. You will receive a determination letter with the benefit amount you qualify for and when payments will commence. If you are denied benefits, you can appeal the decision.

Remarriage Impact on Benefits

As noted previously, a surviving divorced spouse cannot collect benefits if they remarry before age 60. However, if the remarriage occurs after age 60, the survivor benefits may continue. Here are some key considerations:

  • Remarriage after 60 has no impact on eligibility for divorced widow benefits
  • If the new marriage ends, eligibility for survivor benefits is reinstated
  • A spouse from the new marriage does not qualify for benefits on the deceased ex-spouse’s record
  • If the new spouse dies, the widow may be eligible for the highest benefit amount from either marriage but not both

It’s important to notify Social Security right away if you remarry after age 60 or if that marriage ends to avoid issues with continuing benefits.

Taxation of Benefits

Up to 85% of Social Security benefits may be subject to federal income tax depending on the recipient’s combined income from all sources. However, no states currently tax Social Security income. Here are some key facts on the taxation of survivor benefits:

  • Combined income includes adjusted gross income, non-taxable interest, and 50% of your Social Security benefit
  • For a single filer, if this amount is between $25,000 and $34,000, up to 50% of the benefit is taxable
  • Over $34,000 up to 85% of the benefit is taxable
  • Joint filers have an income threshold of $32,000 to $44,000 before benefits become taxable

Since taxation reduces net benefits paid, individuals should evaluate their total income situation including any pensions, investment income, or wages they receive in addition to Social Security survivor benefits. Proper tax planning and utilizing deductions can help reduce tax exposure.

Receiving Pensions or Government Benefits

In most cases, collecting a pension or other government benefits has no impact on eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits. Your ex-spouse still earned the Social Security coverage so you qualify for a benefit. However, the additional income you receive may trigger taxation on your Social Security benefits.

A few special considerations around additional income sources include:

  • A Social Security widow or widower benefit is reduced by the amount of any government pension the surviving spouse receives based on their own work history (not the deceased spouse’s).
  • If receiving a pension from work not covered by Social Security (like the federal civil service), the Windfall Elimination Provision may reduce Social Security benefits.
  • Social Security benefits offset SSI payments dollar for dollar, but have no impact on SSDI benefits.

Impact on the Deceased’s Children

When a divorced parent dies, the Social Security survivor benefits paid to an ex-spouse can reduce the amount available for minor or disabled children. Here is how the children’s amount is impacted:

  • Children receive a maximum of 75% of the deceased parent’s benefit amount
  • But if a surviving divorced spouse is also drawing benefits, the children’s amount is reduced proportionally
  • The total amount paid to a surviving divorced spouse and children generally cannot exceed the deceased parent’s full benefit amount
  • The SSA calculates the reduction to each dependent child’s benefit automatically

Therefore, while an ex-wife has no direct legal duty to financially support stepchildren from her former marriage, claiming Social Security survivor benefits does reduce the amount they may receive if eligible. This must be considered when coordinating benefits for all eligible family members.

Coordinating Multiple Benefits

In some situations, a surviving divorced spouse may qualify for Social Security benefits based on both their own work history and their former spouse’s coverage. Here are some key coordination rules:

  • A spouse generally can only collect one benefit at a time, but are entitled to the higher amount
  • Switching between benefit types is allowed upon reaching full retirement age
  • A surviving spouse can switch from survivor benefits to their own benefits as early as age 62
  • Remarriage may impact survivor benefits but does not affect eligibility for benefits based on your own record
  • Dependent benefits (like for children) end if you switch from survivor benefits to your own benefit

Strategic claiming and timing of benefits between multiple eligible family members is crucial to optimize Social Security income. Consulting a financial planner can provide guidance.


In summary, a deceased worker’s ex-wife may be able to collect Social Security survivor benefits if certain conditions are met around length of marriage and current marital status. While complicated scenarios can arise, the key criteria to receive benefits are at least a 10 year marriage before divorce was finalized and no current remarriage unless it occurred after age 60. Understanding the nuances around applying for and receiving survivor benefits enables a divorced spouse to access this key income source after their former partner dies.