When Can Widows Get Social Security Disability Benefits?

If your deceased spouse was getting Social Security disability benefits, you might be eligible for widow’s (or widower’s) benefits—depending on your age and other factors.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

When someone's spouse dies, the loss of income can create significant financial hardship for the surviving spouse. If your husband or wife had been receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and died, you might still be able to get at least part of that monthly disability benefit.

As a widow or widower, you might qualify for Social Security survivors benefits (also called widow's or widower's benefits). Here's what it takes to qualify for survivors benefits and when a widow or widower can get Social Security benefits based on a deceased spouse's SSDI.

What Social Security Benefits Are Available for Widows (and Widowers)?

To qualify for survivors benefits as a widow or widower after your spouse dies, you must meet certain requirements. These include:

  • Your spouse must have been getting (or must have been eligible to get) SSDI benefits when they died.
  • You must be at least 60 years old (or at least 50 years old and disabled).
  • You must have been married to your spouse for at least nine months before their death.

Note that if you're raising your spouse's child(ren) younger than 16, you'll likely qualify for mother's or father's benefits even if you're younger than 50.

What Are the Rules for Survivors Benefits for Disabled Widows (and Widowers)?

To qualify for Social Security survivors benefits as a disabled widow or widower (age 50-59), you must have been disabled when your spouse died or your disability must have started within seven years of your spouse's death. This seven-year period is known as the "prescribed period."

But there's an exception to this rule. If you first received mother's or father's benefits while you were caring for your deceased spouse's child(ren), the seven-year period starts when your mother's or father's benefit ends. This exception can greatly lengthen the time you're eligible to apply for disabled widow benefits ("DWB").

If you became disabled immediately after your spouse's death but won't be at least 50 years old within seven years of your spouse's death, you won't be eligible for benefits until you turn 60. For example, let's say you're 40 when your spouse dies and you become disabled that same year. You won't qualify for Social Security benefits as a disabled widow(er) because seven years after your spouse's death, you'll only be 47.

How to Get Social Security Benefits as a Disabled Widow(er)

To collect survivors benefits as a disabled widow or widower, Social Security must find you have a disability that prevents you from doing a substantial amount of work. You generally have to either meet the requirements of one of Social Security's listed disabilities or prove that there are no jobs that you can do—even simple sit-down jobs that require little walking or lifting.

Learn more about qualifying medically for disability benefits.

Can Widows With No Work Experience Get Disability Benefits?

If you're an older worker, Social Security has a special "vocational profile" that can make it easier to qualify for disability because of your age. Social Security must automatically find you disabled if you:

  • are age 55 or older
  • have no "past relevant work" (no substantial gainful activity within the last 15 years)
  • have no formal schooling past the 11th grade, and
  • have a severe impairment.

It's much easier to prove that you have a severe impairment than to prove that you meet the requirements of a listed disability or that there are no jobs you can do. The SSA defines a "severe" impairment as one that significantly limits your ability to perform one activity needed to do most jobs, such as:

  • walking, sitting, standing, pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying items
  • hearing, speaking, or seeing
  • understanding and following simple directions, or
  • interacting with co-workers and supervisors, or adjusting to changes in the workplace.

If your ability to do physical activities is significantly limited, Social Security should find your impairment(s) severe. In fact, for Social Security to deny you by saying your impairments weren't severe, the agency would have to find that you have only slight abnormalities that have only a minimal effect on your ability to work.

How Much Social Security Benefits Can a Widow Get?

How much your survivors benefits will be is based on the amount of SSDI your deceased spouse had been getting (or was entitled to get), as well as your age and other factors. If you've reached full retirement age, you can get 100% of your spouse's SSDI amount. But if you're not yet full retirement age, you'll get less because you'll be claiming benefits before full retirement age.

It breaks down like this. If you're:

  • at least 60 years old, but not yet full retirement age: 71.5% - 99% of your deceased spouse's SSDI benefit, depending on your age
  • at least 50 and qualified as a disabled widow(er): 71.5% of your deceased spouse's SSDI benefit, or
  • not yet at full retirement age, and you're caring for your deceased spouse's child(ren) age 16 or younger: 75%.

Example: Let's say you're 55 years old, you don't have children collecting benefits on your spouse's record, and you're disabled. In that case, you could receive up to 71.5% of your deceased spouse's SSDI benefit amount. So if your spouse's monthly disability benefits had been $3,100, you'd get about $2,217 per month in widow(er) 's benefits.

If you have other income, like from a part-time job, your benefit would be further reduced if you earn more than Social Security's limit ($22,320 per year in 2024). If you earn twice your annual benefit amount, you won't qualify for widow(er) 's benefits at all. This "earnings test" applies only to widows who are younger than full retirement age. Once you reach full retirement age, there's no limit on the amount you can earn.

And there's a family benefit limit too. The maximum family benefit (MFB) is 150% of the amount of SSDI your deceased spouse was getting. If the total amount payable to you and other members of your family (like dependent children) is more than the MFB, everyone's benefit amount will be reduced proportionally to bring the total below the family benefit limit.

Can You Get Widow(er)'s Benefits and Social Security Disability at the Same Time?

The practical answer is no. You generally can't draw both Social Security disability and widow(er) 's benefits at the same time. But if you qualify for both programs—that is, you're a disabled worker who gets (or could get) SSDI benefits based on your own work record, and you qualify for the widow(er) 's benefit based on your deceased spouse's SSDI—you can receive the amount of the benefit that would pay you more.

For example, let's say you're a disabled worker getting $1,800 in monthly SSDI benefits, and you became eligible for widow(er) 's benefits when your spouse died. Social Security won't pay more than the higher benefit amount.

So if you become eligible for a widow(er) 's benefit of $2,300 per month, Social Security would continue to pay your SSDI benefit plus another $500 per month in survivors benefits (because $2,300 - $1,800 = $500).

But if you become eligible for a widow's benefit of only $1,600, you'd continue to receive only your SSDI benefit of $1,800, since it's higher.

What Happens to Widow's Benefits When You Reach Retirement Age?

If you're receiving disabled widow's benefits, they will automatically convert to regular widow's benefits (called "aged widow's benefits") when you turn 60. When you reach full retirement age, your survivor benefits will stay at the reduced rate, depending on the age you were when you began collecting widow or widower benefits from Social Security.

When you reach full retirement age, if your own retirement benefits (the benefits you're entitled to on your own earnings record) will pay you more, your benefits will convert to your own retirement benefits.

How to Apply for Social Security Widow Benefits

Unlike many other Social Security benefits, you can't apply for widow(er)'s benefits online. Instead, you should call the SSA at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) between 8:00 am and 7:00 pm Monday through Friday and speak with a representative. Or contact your local Social Security office to apply for these important survivors benefits.

Learn more about the survivor benefits available from Social Security, including survivor benefits for divorced spouses.

Updated December 28, 2023

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