Workers who have a long-term disability and have earned sufficient Social Security credits are often entitled to monthly Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits, and sometimes their spouses are entitled to collect a monthly spouse's benefit as well. Spouses married for at least a year, divorced spouses who were married at least 10 years, and surviving spouses can be entitled to benefits based on the earnings record of the disabled spouse (or disabled ex-spouse).
If a husband or wife has been married for at least a year to someone who receives Social Security disability benefits, the spouse can get Social Security benefits if the spouse is 62 years old or older. Note that eligibility for the spousal disability benefit will end if he or she becomes eligible to receive significantly higher Social Security benefits on his or her own record.
Even though a spouse is allowed to collect benefits at age 62, a spouse who collects spousal benefits before the full retirement age will be hit with the early retirement penalty. (This does not apply to those caring for a child under 16 who is eligible for a child's benefit and who are receiving mother's or father's benefits—see below.)
If a spouse was married for at least a year to a disabled worker who died while receiving Social Security disability benefits, the surviving spouse can get benefits in either of these circumstances:
This benefit is sometimes called the widow or widower's benefit. Note that the surviving spouse's benefits will end if he or she becomes eligible to receive significantly higher Social Security benefits on his or her own record. And if a surviving spouse gets remarried before age 60, or age 50 if disabled, Social Security benefits will be denied.
If an ex-spouse was married for at least ten years to a disabled worker who is collecting SSDI, the divorced spouse can get benefits if he or she is 62 years old or older.
If the disabled worker dies but was receiving SSDI benefits when he died, a divorced spouse is entitled to benefits in either of the following circumstances:
If a surviving divorced spouse gets remarried before age 60, however, Social Security benefits will be denied (unless the spouse was between 50 and 60 and disabled at the time of marriage). If the surviving divorced spouse gets divorced after age 60 (or age 50 if disabled), the Social Security Administration (SSA) will ignore the marriage.
When an insured worker becomes disabled or dies while collecting SSDI, a spouse (or divorced spouse) can get benefits if the spouse cares for at least one child of the disabled worker who is under age 16 or disabled (if the disabled child is over age 22, the child must have been disabled since before age 22). These benefits are sometimes known as "mother's or father's benefits." In the case of a divorced spouse, the ten-year rule doesn't apply for mother's or father's benefits.
If the spouse continues to care for a child after age 16 and the child is disabled, the spouse may be eligible to continue to receive Social Security payments. (You must explain to Social Security that you have parental control over and responsibility for a mentally disabled child or that you physically care for a child with physical disabilities to continue benefits.) Note: If you are caring for a disabled child over age 22, the disability must have occurred before age 22. For more information on eligibility, see our article on mother's and father's benefits.
Note that if you are collecting benefits based on caring for a child under 16, and you work at the same time, Social Security will take away some of your benefits if you make over a certain amount of earned income for the year. For the year 2022, this limit is $19,560 ($1,630 per month). If you earn over this limit, your spousal benefit will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you earn over the limit. For high earners, this means the benefit will disappear. (And note that when you reach full retirement age, Social Security won't recalculate the amount of your benefits to take into account the amounts you lost because of this earnings rule, as it would with folks working while receiving early retirement benefits.)
If the disabled worker is still living, a spouse generally receives 50% of the disabled worker's primary insurance amount (the amount of the husband or wife's monthly SSDI check), although if the disabled worker's children are collecting benefits at the same time, the spouse's benefit can be reduced. The total of the spouse's benefit and the children's benefit cannot be greater than the maximum family benefit, which is generally 150% of the disabled worker's monthly SSDI benefit. (Note that the benefits paid to a divorced spouse based on being over 60 or disabled are not counted toward the maximum family benefit and won't affect a current spouse's or child's benefits. However, benefits paid to a divorced spouse who is collecting a mother's or father's benefit are counted toward the maximum family benefit.)
The amount a surviving spouse (or surviving divorced spouse) will receive depends on how old the spouse is and whether the spouse is taking care of the deceased worker's children. The amount varies between 75% and 100% of the deceased worker's monthly amount.
In addition, if a disabled worker dies while receiving Social Security benefits, the surviving spouse will receive a death benefit worth several hundred dollars if the surviving spouse was living in the same household.
If your husband or wife's disability claim has already been approved, call the Social Security Administration (SSA) at 800-772-1213 to apply for the spouse's SSDI benefit. You must provide the SSA with your birth certificate, your marriage certificate, your Social Security number (and that of the disabled worker), and your bank's routing information for direct deposit. If you are applying for a survivor benefit, you will also need to provide your deceased spouse or ex-spouse's death certificate or other proof from the funeral home.
Updated February 10, 2022