Social Security Benefits for Widows (and Widowers)

Most people are aware that they can claim reduced Social Security retirement benefits when they reach 62 years of age, or full benefits when they reach full retirement age – 66 years of age for retirees born from January 1, 1943 to December 31, 1954.  However, eligibility for Social Security benefits based on the earnings record of a deceased spouse is subject to many convoluted rules.

To sort out the rules, consider the case of Newt Gingrich and his three wives, had he died on the Ides of March in 2001.  Newt’s first wife was Jacqueline Battley, born February 21, 1936.  She was married to Newt from 1962 to 1981.  He next married Marianne Ginther, born in 1958, in 1981.  They divorced in 2000.  Newt then married Callista Bisek, born March 4, 1966, on August 18, 2000.

In order to qualify for widow’s benefits, the widow (note that the rules for widowers are the same as for widows) must have been married to the wage earner for at least nine months, or must be the other legal parent of the wage earner’s child.  If divorced from the wage earner, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years.  The widow must also be 60 years old or 50 years old and disabled.  If the widow applies at full retirement age and qualifies for benefits, she will receive a Social Security benefit equal to the benefit the wage earner would have received at full retirement age, unless the wage earner had started drawing retirement benefits before full retirement age.  In that case, the wage earner’s benefits would have been reduced, as would the widow’s benefits.

On Newt’s death, Jacqueline Battley would have been 65, full retirement age, since she was born before 1938.  Because she had suffered the required 10 years of Newt, she would have been eligible to draw a widow’s benefit.

Marianne Ginther also endured the required 10 years of marriage to the philandering congressman, but she would not be eligible for a widow’s benefit before 2008 at age 50, if disabled, or 2018, if not disabled.

Callista Bisek Gingrich would not have been married to Newt the necessary nine months by March 15, 2001.  If Newt had died of natural causes she would not get a widow’s benefit.  However, if Newt had died an accidental or violent death – say he was trampled to death on the steps of the State Department by a mob of candidates for political appointments in the new Bush Administration – that would be an exception to the nine-month rule.  In that case, Callista, who turned 35 in 2001, could have qualified for a widow’s benefit on reaching the prescribed age.

Surprisingly, remarriage of Jacqueline, who actually died in 2013, Marianne or Callista would not affect their eligibility.  Similarly, if Newt survives his ex-wives or Callista, he could be eligible to draw a widower’s benefit on their accounts.  It depends on whose benefit is higher.  If Newt’s Social Security benefit is $1,500 per month, but Jacqueline’s would have been $1,800, he could draw on her account.  As long as Jacqueline was alive, however, Newt would have only been eligible to draw half of Jacqueline’s benefit.  Therefore, he would have drawn on his own account until after her death.

Furthermore, if they lived long enough, Jacqueline, Marianne and Callista could all draw widows’ benefits simultaneously on Newt’s account.  One widow’s benefit would not reduce either of the others’ benefits.

This is not a complete explanation of all the rules and exceptions for widows’ and widowers’ benefits under Social Security, but Newt and his wives demonstrate in general how the benefits are awarded.  The two most important principles to remember are that divorce after ten years of marriage does not cut off the divorced spouse’s right to draw on the other spouse’s Social Security benefit base and that one divorcee’s or widow’s benefit does not affect the benefit of another divorcee or widow with respect to the same wage earner.

For discussion of when to start drawing benefits, see “When should I start drawing Social Security retirement benefits?

John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2013 John B. Payne, Attorney

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