Dear Penny: Can I Get My Dead Husband’s Social Security After Secret Divorce?

A woman sits in the ocean with an empty chair next to her to signify the death of a spouse.
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Dear Penny,

My ex-husband was killed in a car accident in November 2018. We were married legally for five years. We got divorced so our daughter could get SSI. She has cerebral palsy. 

When we divorced, we didn't tell anyone except for Social Security. Not even his parents knew we were divorced. We were planning on getting married again at the justice of the peace after our daughter turned 18. Unfortunately, he was killed three months before her 18th birthday.

I took care of his funeral, and I am administrator of his estate. My daughter draws off of his benefits since she is disabled. I was told I don't qualify. Is there some way around this? 

I barely worked in the 20 years we were together. I stayed home to take care of our daughter. She had endless doctor appointments, physical, occupational and speech therapy appointments, and several surgeries. Even now it is difficult for me to find a job around her schedule. 

— Surviving Spouse

Dear Surviving Spouse,

Unfortunately, the circumstances of your divorce don’t matter to Social Security. If you’re claiming retirement or survivor benefits based on an ex-spouse’s record, Social Security requires that the marriage last for at least 10 years.

But it sounds like you may qualify for something called Mother’s or Father’s Insurance benefits after your heartbreaking loss. The program is administered through Social Security. It’s available to surviving spouses and ex-spouses who are caring for the child of a deceased worker who was fully insured. (In Social Security parlance, “fully insured deceased worker” refers to someone who died with enough work credits to qualify for benefits, which typically means they worked full time for at least 10 years.)

Dear Penny

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You can receive Mother’s or Father’s Insurance benefits if the child is younger than 16 or, as in your case, the child is an adult who has a disability that began before age 22. You don’t have to meet the 10-year marriage requirement, though you have to remain unmarried. The maximum benefit is 75% of your late husband’s primary insurance amount, which is the benefit he would have qualified for at full retirement age.

You’ll only be eligible for this benefit if your daughter remains in your care. If you think your daughter may be able to live independently someday or that you may not be able to care for her at some point, that’s important to keep in mind, particularly if you don’t have enough work credits to qualify for Social Security benefits on your own.

Since being your daughter’s caregiver is clearly a full-time job, you also may be able to get paid as a caregiver. Many state Medicaid programs allow family members to earn money as caregivers, though the rules vary widely by state. If this is an option, you could earn Social Security credits of your own in addition to income.

Social Security’s benefit eligibility screening tool is a good resource for confirming that you qualify for Mother’s or Father’s Insurance, along with any other benefits. The rules for various Social Security benefits are incredibly complex, even for people who deal with issues like yours every day. It wouldn’t surprise me if Social Security simply gave you incorrect information when they told you that you didn’t qualify for benefits.

I’m sorry that on top of the tragic loss you and your daughter have endured, you’re left to navigate these bureaucratic mazes. I hope these options will help to fill the financial void left behind.

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Editor’s note: Dear Penny is on vacation this week. This column was originally published Sept. 29, 2021.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].