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Authored by Boyce Hinman, founder and director of the California Communities United Institute, and member of Marriage Equality USA. Hinman has been writing and posting a series, "Monday Morning Marriage Memo," as part of his Anatomy for Justice blog. This article was first published there, and is republished here with the author’s permission. Hinman resides in and serves California, therefore the posts sometimes have a California slant.
NOTE: Marriage Equality USA is not a legal firm or a tax/accounting firm. No action should be taken based solely on the content of our news blog or website.
Recently someone said she had heard that widows and widowers could only get Social Security survivor benefits if they have been married at least 10 years at the time of the death of their spouse. Same sex couples have only recently been allowed to marry. So, if there is a 10 year threshold, same sex couples would need to wait a long time before qualifying for Social Security survivor benefits.
I am not an attorney or a qualified tax expert. No action should be taken based solely on the content of these memos. However, I hope the memos will help you ask the right questions of people who are qualified in these issues.
In fact, a couple must have been married for a minimum of only 9 months before the death of one of them for the widow or widower to qualify for Social Security survivor benefits based on the Social Security account of the deceased spouse. According to a representative of the Social Security Administration, that threshold period can be reduced. For example, if the spouse died in a tragic accident the 9 month rule might be reduced.
People can also get certain Social Security spousal benefits when both of them are alive. To qualify for these benefits, the couple must have been married for a year prior to applying for the benefits.
In the case of divorce, the former spouse of the deceased might also qualify for Social Security survivor benefits. However, in order for the divorced former spouse to qualify, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years.
As regards widows and widowers who were married to the deceased at the time of death, how much the survivor receives depends on several factors.
The more earnings the deceased had prior to death, the higher the monthly payment the survivor may qualify for.
The longer the deceased has been working, and paying Social Security taxes, the higher the amount the survivor will receive. However this factor does not increase the benefit beyond 10 years of working history of the deceased. The deceased’s having worked 11 years does not increase the benefit any more than 10 years of work does.
Survivors get the full monthly payment if the worker worked and paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years. However, if the deceased died young and had not yet worked 10 years, the widow or widower might still qualify for some portion of the full monthly payment.
The age of the survivor, when he or she starts drawing the Social Security benefit, affects how large the monthly payments are. If he or she waits until full retirement age the survivor will get the full benefit. Full retirement age varies from age 66 to 67, depending on the date of birth of the survivor.
However, in return for accepting reduced monthly payments, the survivor can start monthly payments as young as age 60. Also, if the survivor is caring for a child of the deceased, who is under age 16, the surviving spouse can start monthly payments at any age. In this case, the surviving spouse would get the full monthly payment. The amount would not be reduced because of the young age of the surviving spouse.
You may read a brochure from the Social Security Administration, with more details on this issue, by directing your browser to the following address: http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10084.pdf
Note: This article was corrected from an earlier version that misstated the amount of time a couple must be married before being eligible for social security spousal benefits.