When a person whose job was primarily a homemaker or "housewife" becomes disabled, he or she may find herself ineligible for any kind of disability benefits. This is because homemakers frequently lack a significant employment history to qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), have too many financial resources to qualify for SSI (Supplemental Security Income), and don't have an employer who pays for a long-term disability policy.
The inability to qualify for disability benefits can create economic hardship for families when the homemaker becomes disabled. This is especially true if the working spouse dies and there is no other source of income. Fortunately, if you are the widow(er) of a person with a qualifying work history, you may be eligible for either survivor benefits or for disabled widow(er) benefits.
Social Security Disability (SSDI) for Homemakers
In addition to having medical disability, the SSDI program requires that you have a substantial work history with employers who paid taxes to the Social Security Administration (SSA). However, if you stayed home for only a short period before becoming disabled, and you had a consistent work history before becoming a homemaker, you may still be eligible for SSDI. This is because SSDI premiums, like most insurance policies, protect you against future disability; therefore, even when you quit working you may be “paid up” on your SSDI insurance coverage for several years into the future. For more information, see our articles on SSDI and date last insured.
If your spouse or ex-spouse has died, and you are either at least 50 years old or you have children under 16, you may be able to use your spouse’s work history to qualify for SSDI disability payments (see further discussion below).
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for Homemakers
SSI is available to some people who do not qualify for SSDI. However, to be eligible for SSI you must meet certain strict income and asset limits. If your spouse works and you have assets, such as checking accounts and retirement accounts, you probably can’t qualify for SSI because you have too much money. For more information, see our article on how to qualify for SSI.
Mother’s and Father’s Social Security Benefits
You may be eligible for benefits based on your spouse’s earnings record if your spouse has become disabled and is eligible for SSDI or has died, and:
- you care for your deceased spouse's child who is under the age of 16 or is disabled and eligible for child’s insurance benefits
- you have not remarried
- you are not eligible for a higher Social Security retirement benefit on your own earnings record or someone else’s, and
- you are not entitled to widow(er) benefits.
If you had obtained a final divorce from your deceased ex-spouse, and meet all of the above criteria, you are also eligible for benefits.
For more information, see our article on mother's and father's benefits.
Social Security Survivor Benefits
There are three types of benefits available to surviving spouses: disabled widow(er) benefits (DWB), survivor benefits, and mother's and father's benefits (discussed above). The type of benefit a person is eligible for depends on his or her age and health and whether the surviving spouse cares for the deceased spouse's children.
Disabled Widow's Benefits (DWB)
You may be eligible for DWB based on your deceased spouse’s work record if:
- You are at least 50 years old.
- Social Security determines that you are disabled.
- Your disability began between the ages of 50 and 60, and
- Your disability started before, or within seven years after, your spouse died.
Also, you need to have been married at least nine months before your spouse died, but there are numerous exceptions to the marriage duration requirement. (For more information, visit the Social Security website.) Divorced spouses who meet these criteria may also be eligible for benefits.
Note that, if you are over age 54, Social Security has special rules that can make it easier for you to be found disabled, even if you haven't worked in the last 15 years. (For more information, see Nolo's blog post on Social Security disability benefits for widows.)
If you are 60 years or older when your spouse dies, you may be eligible for survivor benefits based on your spouse’s employment history, as follows:
- Widows and widowers can receive reduced retirement benefits at age 60.
- Widows and widowers who wait until full retirement age to collect (this age depends on the year of your birth) can receive the full retirement amount.
If you remarry after the age of 60, your benefits will not be affected. You can also apply at age 60 for disability for the purpose of getting access to Medicare.
For more information, see our article on survivor benefits and DWB.
Social Security Benefits for Divorced Spouses
If your ex-spouse dies, you may be eligible for the same survivor benefits as if you had remained married. To qualify as a divorced spouse you must:
- have been married for ten years
- have not remarried (unless you are over 60, or over 50 if disabled), and
- be unable to get an equal or higher benefit amount on your own or someone else’s record.
However, if you are caring for the decedent’s child who is under the age of 16, or who is disabled and receiving benefits based on the decedent’s work record, you don’t have to meet the marriage length requirement. This benefit only applies to children that were naturally born to, or legally adopted by, the deceased spouse. For more information, see our article on survivor benefits for divorced spouses.
Disability for Immigrants
Illegal immigrants are not eligible for disability benefits. However, some aliens may be eligible for SSI if they qualify as PRUCOL aliens (permanent residents under the color of law.) There are 18 ways in which immigrant may be qualified as a PRUCOL alien. To see if you may qualify for SSI, you can visit Social Security's website, which discusses the SSI eligibility requirements for non-citizens.