Social Security’s Legacy to Ex-Wives, Kids

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Social Security Administration poster, 1956
Social Security Administration poster, 1956

Many women are fuzzy on how Social Security benefits for widows work and even more unclear about the program’s spousal benefits.

I know two of these women. Their situations nicely illustrate how this federal program promotes the well-being of older women and families.

One is my divorced aunt. She was surprised to learn, after my uncle died a few years ago, that her widow’s – or survivor’s – benefit, based on his decades of work as a housing developer, would be double the spousal benefit she’d received while he was alive. Divorced spouses are eligible for the same spousal and survivor’s benefits as still-married spouses, though only if the marriage lasted more than 10 years.

For a more complex experience involving Social Security’s child, spousal and survivor benefits, consider a friend of mine, who married an older man with whom she adopted two baby girls from China.

The couple divorced after 12 years, but John remained a loving older father. He showered his little girls with attention and, as they grew up, spoiled them with shopping sprees at the mall. But one of his best gifts came after he retired: Social Security benefits that provided financial security to his daughters and their mother.

John, like many older men, had difficulty finding steady work, but earlier in his career, he’d been a well-paid executive. On the strength of this earnings history, John signed up for his Social Security pension when he reached his full retirement age. His initial benefit was $2,209. In addition to this benefit, $828 per month went to each of his daughters, who were in elementary and middle school at the time.

Under Social Security’s rules, benefits go to children under age 16 when a parent is collecting a Social Security pension. This continues until the child reaches age 18 (or 19, if they’re still in high school). Each child’s benefit is precisely half of the parent’s pension, but John’s daughters received less than half because they bumped up against Social Security’s family maximum.

When John died a year ago, at age 73, his Social Security legacy continued.

My friend – a single mother with a career in local government – was left with the monumental task of paying for their oldest daughter’s college at the same time that her second child’s benefit was drying up. Further, John had depleted most of his financial assets due to illness and died without a will. His estate left $100,000 for the two girls to share – nice but not enough to pay their college tuitions.

Social Security came through again after John died. Under the program’s rules, his youngest daughter’s child benefit jumped to $1,873 per month, up from 50 percent to 75 percent of her father’s full benefit, which had reached $2,497 by the time he died.

Like her sister, the youngest child’s benefit will end just as she’s heading to college. By coincidence, that’s when the survivor benefit left to the girls’ mother will be coming into play. When she reaches her full retirement age under Social Security, at 66 and two months, my friend plans to claim 100 percent of the benefit her late husband was collecting at the time of his death – $2,497 per month – just as daughter No. 2 is in the second semester of her freshman year.

Collecting John’s survivor benefit at age 66 will bring in a cool $30,000 per year to help defray the college bills.

Since my friend has a career and is building up her own earnings record with the U.S. Social Security Administration, she will not claim her own benefit until it maxes out when she’s 70. At 70, she’ll have already retired and been living partly on John’s survivor benefit. But at that point, at 70, she’ll have the option of claiming her own maximum benefit or continuing John’s survivor’s benefit – whichever is larger. If things keep going as they are now, her benefit should be larger than her late husband’s.

My middle-class friend is just one example of how spouses and children can get help from Social Security. The program is even more valuable to lower-income spouses and kids.

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Wow! This is an eye opening article. Information like this should be vividly explained to families, particularly women who are inclined to live longer than men, so they can take better advantage of what is available to them and live comfortably in retirement. Research shows more women are impoverished in retirement than their male counterparts. Knowing the benefits available to them would make a significance difference in their lives and finances.


I agree with Esthy. Great article, and a brilliant way to explain the complexities of Social Security in a way everyone can understand. This also works for men, too, if they survive their wives. Do you know whether this applies to domestic partners?

Steve French

Great article but in case #2 if your friend works in local government, how is she paying to Social Security?


I was married 15 years before my divorce. My ex worked for the federal government and started in 1979. I am not sure I will get half of anything since he most likely did not pay into Social Security. What do ex-spouses of federal employees do? His benefit would be much larger than mine as he makes a six figure income. I feel this is most unfair.

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