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Social Security - Easy-To-Understand Explanations of Surviving Spouses' and Ex-Spouses' Benefits

Social Security File #2

Social Security File #2

Surviving Spouses' and Ex-Spouses' Benefits
Medicare Benefits
What To Expect When You File
Final Tips

Benefits for the surviving spouse and surviving ex-spouse

Almost 20% of all SS benefits are paid to survivors. So when a worker dies, besides benefits for children, there are benefits for surviving spouses and divorced spouses. Be sure not to get this information confused with facts about spouses and ex-spouses of living workers.

There are 4 categories of surviving spouses: Two kinds of older spouses and two kinds of younger spouses. And the rules are different.

  1. The older legal spouse must have been legally married to the worker for at least 9 months at the time of the worker's death. The 9 month marriage duration rule is waived if the death was accidental.
  2. The older divorced spouse must have been legally married to the deceased worker for at least 10 full years before divorce.
    In both cases, the older spouse is eligible to draw benefits on the deceased worker's work record at age 60. If, however, the older spouse is disabled, eligibility may begin at age 50.
    In both cases, the older spouse must not be remarried unless the remarriage occurs after age 60 (after age 50 if disabled).
    This means that marriage after age 60 (50) does not affect entitlement to the benefit.
  3. The younger legal spouse was married to the deceased worker at death .
  4. The younger divorced spouse was divorced at the time of the worker's death.
    In both cases, the surviving spouse must be caring for a child who is either younger than 16 or was disabled before age 22 young and who is also entitled to benefits on the deceased worker's record.
    In both cases, the child in care must be the natural or adopted child of both the deceased worker and the applicant spouse.
    In both cases, the younger spouse is entitled to benefits until the youngest child reaches 16 or so long as the disabled child remains disabled.
    In both cases, there is no minimum age and no minimum marriage duration required for the younger spouse to draw.

How are the benefits figured for older surviving spouses?

The older spouse's benefit is a percentage of the deceased worker's unreduced benefit, depending on the surviving spouse's age when benefits are drawn. This benefit will not be less than 71.5% of the worker's unreduced amount, and it generally will not be more than the entitled deceased worker was drawing at death.

Things to remember if you are an older surviving spouse:

  • If you are age 65 or older when your spouse dies and your spouse was drawing at the time of death, you will receive the same amount as the deceased was drawing.
  • If you are entitled to another benefit, such as retirement on your own work record, you may draw the higher of the two, but not the full amount of both.
  • If the deceased worker was entitled to higher benefits because he received delayed retirement credits, the surviving spouse will get a higher benefit as well.
  • The amount of the younger spouse's benefit depends on how many others are also drawing benefits on the same record. Your benefit amount as a younger surviving spouse can never exceed 75% of the deceased worker's unreduced benefit. It will generally be a share of the family maximum.

Bottom Line: While spouses and ex-spouses of living workers must wait until age 62 to begin drawing benefits, older surviving spouses and ex-spouses of deceased workers can begin to draw at age 60 (age 50 if they are disabled) and there is no age minimum for younger surviving spouses or ex-spouses.

Medicare Benefits

MEDICARE is the Federal Government's hospital and medical insurance package for most SS beneficiaries whether they be workers, dependents, or survivors. Because of the continuing rise in health care costs and the way Congress changes the laws, Medicare is the most volatile aspect of SS. These changes will be covered in our newsletter in as simple and straightforward a manner as possible. To become eligible for Medicare benefits, you must...

  • Be age 65 or older and drawing monthly benefits. If you are not eligible for monthly benefits, you can purchase Medicare at age 65. There is no qualifying medical exam.
  • Have drawn any kind of SS disability benefit for a full two years, regardless of your age.
  • Have experienced kidney failure that requires regular kidney dialysis or a kidney transplant.

What does Medicare pay for?

As with all health insurance, Medicare only pays "medically necessary expenses." There are two parts to Medicare:

  1. Hospitalization (Part A) is free (unless you must purchase it because you are not entitled to SS benefits) and
  2. Medical Insurance (Part B) for which you pay a comparatively small monthly premium.

Hospital Insurance (PART A) pays all inpatient charges after you pay a deductible. This deductible increases each year as medical costs increase and must be paid for each benefit period.

Medical Insurance (PART B) pays 80% of Medicare-approved charges (doctor, outpatient hospital, etc.) after you pay an annual deductible that is subject to change.

How about Medigap insurance?

Since Medicare will cover only a portion of your medical bills, you may want to consider purchasing a private policy to help pay the balance. These policies are commonly referred to as Medigap insurance.

You should consider getting a Medigap policy if you.....

  • are not already covered under your own or your spouse's insurance at work;
  • do not have Medicaid coverage through your state's Social Services program;
  • can afford to pay additional premiums; and/or
  • cannot, or do not want to, pay for non-covered services with your own money.

A few tips about Medigap:

Be sure to shop around for the best buy and be certain you understand what you will be getting for your money.

Read and understand the policy. Don't rely on brochures and statements of agents.

Deal only with a financially stable company that will be here when the claims will need to be paid.

If you decide to purchase Medigap, make sure you're not purchasing duplicate coverage because this won't help you do anything but waste your money.

Do not get confused: Medicare, Medigap, and most private health policies do not pay for "custodial care" in either nursing homes or in your home because these services are not deemed to be medically necessary. Never purchase Medigap for these purposes.

You need to understand how Medicare is affected by an Employer Group Health Plan (EGHP).

If you plan to work past age 65, and if your employer has at least 20 employees, your employer must make its group health insurance plan available to you with the same coverage as for all other employees.

When you reach age 65, if you are covered under an EGHP, you need to know that....

You may (and should) obtain Medicare Part A, which is free.

Medicare Part B, for which you pay a monthly premium, is optional. If your EGHP provides superior coverage and you are sure you do not need Part B coverage, you may defer getting it until you retire. Your EGHP will pay first, and Medicare will only pay toward the bills not covered by the EGHP.

You will not be penalized for signing up for Part B after age 65 if your coverage is under an employment-related plan.

Your spouse may defer getting Medicare Part B under the same rules that apply to you if he/she is covered under your EGHP.

If you plan to defer enrollment in Medicare Part B, be sure you and your spouse are covered under your employment-related plan and not under some kind of retirement or pension plan.

If you and/or your spouse defer enrollment in Part B and are not covered under an EGHP, the premium will be higher for each year you could have been enrolled in Part B and were not.

Medicare covered and non-covered services

Medicare will cover a portion of all medically necessary services received by an insured. Here is just a sample of what each part of Medicare will cover, followed by an example of how much Medicare should pay toward a fairly typical large medical bill.


  • Inpatient Hospital Care
  • Semiprivate room and meals
  • Nursing care
  • Operating and recovery rooms
  • Intensive care
  • Skilled Nursing Facility Care
  • Skilled nursing and rehabilitative services in a Medicare-approved facility
  • Home Health Care Visits
  • Skilled nursing care
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Hospice care
  • Doctors' and nurses' services
  • Medical supplies
  • Therapies


  • Doctors' Services
  • Surgical procedures
  • Diagnostic tests
  • Nurses' services
  • Outpatient hospital care
  • Emergency room care
  • Outpatient clinic care
  • Home health visits
  • If you do not have Medicare hospital insurance
  • Other medical and health services
  • Ambulance
  • Home dialysis supplies
  • Xrays
  • Radiation treatments


Well, we've made it. Almost. Here are some miscellaneous things you need to know about Social Security.

The $255 lump sum death benefit is a one-time payment designed to help pay funeral costs. The eligible person must apply within 2 years from the date of death or the benefit is forfeited. This benefit is only payable to….

  • the surviving spouse who was living with the worker at the time of death, or
  • the surviving spouse who is eligible for a widow(er)'s benefit; or
  • a child who is entitled to monthly benefits.

It is not payable to either a divorced spouse or a spouse who was separated from the worker at death and who will not be entitled to a monthly widow(er)'s benefit.

Direct deposit is SSA's preferred manner of paying benefits. When you file for benefits, you will be asked for a deposit slip or savings account passbook so your benefits can be direct deposited to the financial institution of your choice.

You may choose not to use direct deposit, but it is far superior to getting a paper check. Very few people using direct deposit have trouble getting their benefits on time. The problem rate among those getting benefits by mail is about ten times the rate for those getting direct deposit.

Entitlement to more than one benefit should be checked out. For example, if you are a divorced spouse who works, when you go to SSA at age 62 or more, see if there is an alternative benefit from your ex-spouse that is greater than your retirement benefit. If your benefit from your ex-spouse's work record is more than your retirement, you will get a combined benefit because you can't draw the full amount of both benefits.

SSA will compare the benefits available and help you decide which will be best for you. You should give SSA your ex-spouse's SS number if you have it. If you do not have it, provide his or her name, place and date of birth, mother's maiden name, and father's name. With this information, SSA can locate your ex-spouse's number and compare the records.

Taxation of SS benefits is important to know about. SS will send you a report at the end of each year showing how much you received in benefits along with a worksheet to help you determine whether your benefits are taxable.

Since a portion of your SS benefit may be subject to income taxes, it's always wise to check with the IRS and your state taxing authorities or your accountant.

AIDS and SS disability has become an issue. AIDS is a disease that can cause disability just like cancer, heart disease, or arthritis. If a person with AIDS cannot work, he or she can qualify for disability benefits. Because AIDS is a fatal disease, these cases are given priority handling.

Representative payment is sometimes necessary when a Social Security beneficiary cannot handle his or her finances competently because of mental or emotional impairments including severe mental retardation, mental illness, or a coma resulting from an accident or stroke.

SSA will appoint a representative payee for these people for as long as necessary. Usually a relative or the staff at the institution where the beneficiary resides takes care of this responsibility. The primary responsibility of the representative payee is to be sure the beneficiary's money is used to pay for necessary expenses. SSA requires a periodic -- usually annual -- accounting of how benefits have been used.

What to expect when you call SSA

When you contact SSA for any reason, the best way to do it is by telephone because most SSA offices and interviewing personnel work largely from a telephone appointment schedule.

When you are ready to investigate SS benefits, you should call SS and ask for the appointment. It is best to know what questions you want to ask before you call. The correct number to call is in your local phone book. Or you can call 1-800-234-5772.

The first person you will talk to, whether you call or go into the office, is a Service Representative (SR), whose initial goal is to figure out what you want and, if needed, set up an interview for you. If you want information or a form -- such as the SSA-7004 or a SS number application -- the SR will help you immediately.

If you want to file a claim for benefits, the SR will set up an appointment for you to have an interview, either by phone or in person (it's your choice), with a Claims Representative (CR). You will also receive a list of documents needed to process your claim (see the "Closing Tips" section of this manual).

If you are applying for disability benefits, you will receive a "Disability Report" that you -- not your doctor -- should complete before the interview. At the appointed time, the CR will call you by telephone, or call for you in from the SSA office reception area if you chose a personal appointment.

During the interview, you be asked and required to answer many questions that will determine entitlement for you and any others who may be eligible. Some of the questions will seem personal, but are necessary. Your marriage history, for instance, is needed to see if a former spouse of the worker is eligible, or to see if you might be eligible on a former spouse's record. If there is information you think is important that you are not asked about, volunteer it. As you give information, the CR will be entering it into SSA's computer. The required documents will also be entered into your computer record.

The interview should last about 20-30 minutes (longer if you are applying for disability benefits). The CR will ask you to review and sign a printed copy of the application, and will certify your entitlement to benefits.

You will receive a decision letter within 10-30 days, depending on whether there are any complications involved. If you file for disability, the interview will usually take no more than 45 minutes. Getting a disability decision requires 45-90 days, because the medical development may be complicated.

Your claim will be stored in one of 6 Program Service Centers, according to the geographical area in which your Social Security number was issued. If your claim is for worker's disability benefits and you are under age 59, it will be housed in the Office of Disability Operations in Baltimore, Maryland.

Some closing tips

When you file your application, you will need to furnish certified copies of certain documents, as well as other proofs to support your claim. Do not try to use photocopies, as SSA cannot accept them. You will need to furnish:

  • Your birth certificate
  • W-2's and/or tax returns for the past 2 years
  • Military form DD214 (a record of service or discharge)
  • Relevant SS Numbers
  • If a widow or widower, your marriage license and the death certificate
  • If divorced, your divorce decree
  • SS Numbers for all children who are eligible for benefits, and their birth records
  • If you are filing for benefits other than disability and you plan to continue working, an estimate of earnings for the year of filing and the following year.
  • If you are filing for disability, the names and addresses of all doctors and hospitals where you were treated along with a 15-year work history.
  • The names of everyone who may be entitled to benefits on the worker's record.

When you apply, be sure that everyone whom you may think be entitled to any benefits is named in the application. This will help protect them for possible benefits.


Terms You Need To Know
How Social Security Works
The Retirement Benefit
The Disability Benefit
Spouses' and Ex-Spouses' Benefits
Children's Benefits


Normal Retirement Age Chart
Benefit Reduction Percentage Chart
Earnings Needed for Work Credits
Annual Earning Test
Computation of Spouse’s Benefits

Or, by using your VISA, MASTERCARD, AMERICAN EXPRESS, OR DISCOVER card, you can purchase the Social Security Video and Manual by visiting our Resource Library.

You must remember: Because each situation is different, my programs are not intended as the final word about Social Security programs or what you might be entitled to receive. The information contained in these files is accurate, but it is not official. This program is neither sponsored by nor endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other Federal agency.

All rights reserved. Produced in the United States of America. This file is sold as, without warranty of any kind, either express or implied. No part of this publication may be reproduced, in whole, in part, in any form, or by any means without express written permission. Making copies of this publication for any purpose is prohibited.


This material was designed to help you learn the basics of Social Security so you will know the questions to ask and some of the answers you should expect. With this information, you should be as informed as anyone about the basics of the system. Since every situation is different, always ask your local Social Security representative about up-to-date changes that might affect you.

This information is not endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other agency of the United States Government.

© 1991 by Jan L. Warner
Post Office Box 11704
Columbia, South Carolina 29211

© 1997 Flying Solo™. All rights reserved. Legal Notices

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