3 Most Important Things to Know About the Social Security Surviving Spouse Benefit

the Social Security Surviving Spouse Benefit

The Social Security surviving spouse benefit seems easy enough to understand. But hidden in the details are small nuances that can cost you – or your loved ones – thousands of dollars in missed benefits.

If you invest the time to make sure you know the rules, you won’t end up like the 10,000 people that a 2018 Office of the Inspector General report discovered had been shortchanged by $131 million in Social Security survivor benefits.

Here, we break down what you need to know about ensuring you receive all the benefits you’re entitled to in three, easy-to-digest sections:

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If You Die Young: How to Calculate Social Security Survivor Benefits (what everyone between the ages of 22-55 should know)

dying before retirement age and social security survivor benefits

Jo’s husband died when he was 44. Jo was only 43, and up until that point, they ran a successful plumbing supply business together. Jo and her husband earned a high income, and his passing left her with the burden of running a demanding business alone.

She didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about her future Social Security benefits at that point of her life. But things are different now.

Jo is about to turn 60. She’s been told that she can qualify for Social Security survivors benefits, and has also heard that the Social Security Administration has a history of miscalculating these benefits — so Jo wants to make sure she understands the math herself.

You Can’t Use the Normal Calculations to Understand Social Security Survivors Benefits

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Social Security Survivor Benefits: The Complete Guide

social security survivor benefits


Whenever I’m asked about how Social Security survivor benefits work, I have a simple answer:

At death of the first spouse, surviving spouses receive the higher of:

  • Their own monthly benefit, or
  • The monthly benefit of the deceased.

That’s the clean and straightforward answer, but it’s not quite that simple.  Although Social Security survivor benefits really are pretty simple, every family is different.  Unique situations and variables can introduce some complexity.

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Common-Law Marriage and Social Security Benefits

Common-Law Marriage and Social Security Benefits

The definition of marriage has always been a hot topic. In the past several years, we’ve seen more and more court cases and news debating this, and as a result, more people from this community have been wondering:

What about the impact of common-law marriages and Social Security benefits? How do these types of relationships get classified in the eyes of the Social Security Administration?

Let’s take a look at the topic today so you can fully understand how Social Security benefits and common-law marriages go together.

The Social Security Administration’s Rules on Common-Law Marriages

The Social Security Administration is not known for their simple, plain language in most cases. So you might be surprised to learn that when it comes to common-law marriages and Social Security benefits…

The rules are actually quite straightforward! According to the SSA, a common-law marriage is a valid marriage. And as such, a common-law couple will be able to claim the same benefits as a couple who followed the “traditional” marriage route.

Common-Law Marriages Are Entitled to the Same Benefits As “Traditional” Marriages

The Social Security benefits you receive as a common-law marriage couple include spousal benefits, survivor benefits and even benefits from an ex-common law spouse.

While that part of the rule is straightforward, there is a bit of a catch: meeting the requirements of a common-law marriage.

These requirements are not as easy as some may think to achieve. Many people incorrectly assume that a common-law marriage is sealed after a certain time period of living together, but it’s not always so simple.

What Qualifies as a Common-Law Marriage?

To make sure I fully understood the rules before sharing them with you, I reached out to my friend Lisa Shoalmire.

Lisa is an Elder Law attorney and a founding partner of the Ross & Shoalmire, LLP Elder Law Firm.

Lisa is well-versed in the rules around common-law marriages and how the SSA sees these relationships. Here’s what she told me:

“Generally, the Social Security Administration will recognize a common-law marriage as valid if the following requirements are met:

First, the common law marriage must be contracted in a state where common-law marriages are recognized. Less than half of the fifty states recognize [these relationships as legally binding].

In states that do recognize common-law marriage, usually the parties must live together and hold themselves out to the public as husband and wife. The cohabitation does not have to be in the State where the marriage agreement was made.

Second, there must be an agreement to marry. This agreement must:

  • Propose a permanent union that is exclusive
  • Be in the present tense
  • Propose a marital status that cannot be terminated at will but can be terminated only in the same manner as a “traditional” marriage, i.e., death, divorce or annulment

Third, the marriage must be entered into by mutual consent of the couple to become husband and wife from that time forward.

Finally, both individuals must be legally capable of entering into a valid marriage such as having the mental capacity to marry or not otherwise be legally married to someone else at the time of entering into the common-law marriage.”

Lisa went on to tell me that many have assumed they were in a common-law marriage, but often find out otherwise when the relationship ends or a death occurs.

If you have questions about the validity of your marriage, you need to see an attorney who can help with this. To find one near you, visit LegalMatch.

What You’ll Need for Social Security Benefits in a Common-Law Marriage: Proof of Marriage

Let’s say you believe you meet all of the requirements for a common-law marriage. What do you need to have in order to apply for Social Security  benefits?

The Social Security Administration mandates that you must provide evidence of your marriage. Evidence to prove a common-law marriage in the States that recognize such marriages must include:

  • A statement from each spouse and a statement from a blood relative of each, if both spouses are living, OR
  • If either spouse is deceased, you will need a statement from the surviving widow or widower and statements from two blood relatives of the decedent, OR
  • A statement from a blood relative of each spouse if each individual has passed away.

The statements from a relative must be made on the Social Security Administration’s official form. You can find this form, called a Statement Regarding Marriage or Statement of Marital Relationship, at any Social Security office.

For more information, see the language on proving eligibility for a common-law marriage in the Social Security Handbook here

Note that the Social Security Administration will also ask you to attach evidence that confirms that you had a common-law marriage, such as mortgage/rent receipts, bank records, insurance policies, and so on.

Don’t Forget: The Rules May Vary, Depending on Your State

It’s important to note that the rules in each state vary greatly on what is required to have a recognized common law marriage.

Since the Social Security Administration takes its lead from individual state law when determining benefits eligibility, it’s important to understand where the individual states differ.

The Social Security’s website has a state-by-state description of how each state treats common law marriage if you need more information.

Have More Questions?

If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too. 

You should also consider joining the 100,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel! For visual learners (as most of us are), this is where I break down the complex rules and help you figure out how to use them to your advantage. 

One last thing that you don’t want to miss: Be sure to get your FREE copy of my Social Security Cheat Sheet. This handy guide takes all of the most important rules from the massive Social Security website and condenses it all down to just one page.