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9-month marriage rule has few exceptions
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Q: I married my husband in June 2012 and he died suddenly in October. Am I eligible for widow's benefits on his account?

A: I'm sorry, but the law says you must have been married for at least nine months before you can be eligible for widow's benefits on his record.

There is one major exception to that duration of marriage rule. That exception says the nine-month requirement can be waived if the death was accidental. And "accidental" is defined as "receiving bodily injuries through violent, external and accidental means." Your email just said he died suddenly. If you meant he died suddenly in something like an automobile accident, then you would be eligible for widow's benefits. But if you meant he died suddenly from natural causes, like a heart attack, then the duration of marriage rule cannot be waived and you would not be eligible for widow's benefits.

There are other minor exceptions to the duration of marriage rule. They involve limited and rather unusual circumstances, so I am pretty sure they would not apply to you. However, you should talk to someone at your local Social Security office about this to make sure.

Q: I was married to my first husband for 28 years. He died in 2001. I married my second husband in 2008, but we divorced last year. I am about to turn 60 and was thinking about widow's benefits from my first husband. But I was told that because I remarried before the age of 60, I forfeited my chances to get benefits on his account. Is this true?

A: No, it's not true. If you were still married to husband number two, then you could not get Social Security from your first husband's record. But because you are divorced, you are once again eligible for widow's benefits from husband number one. In other words, the law simply says you have to be unmarried at the time you file to be eligible for widow's benefits.

That age 60 rule you alluded to comes into play for women who are already getting widow's benefits. The law says if a woman getting widow's benefits remarries after age 60, she can continue to get those checks from her deceased husband's account even though she is now married to another man.

Q: I was married for 30 years and got divorced in 1999. I never remarried, but my ex-husband has been married twice since. His second marriage lasted only two years. But he has been married to his third wife since 2004. If he dies, will I get any of his Social Security? I'm assuming his current wife can't get benefits until they've been married for 10 years. Is this true?

A: If he dies, you will definitely be eligible for divorced widow's benefits on his Social Security account. And his current wife would be eligible for widow's benefits, too, assuming she is old enough. (The 10-year duration of marriage rule applies only to divorced couples.)

And if he does die, you don't have to worry about wife number three's eligibility for widow's benefits. You will each get full amount you are due. Benefits payable to a divorced spouse do not offset benefits payable to a current spouse, and vice versa.

Q: In past columns, you've said many times that women can't get widow's benefits until age 60. But I am familiar with a woman in our church that claims to be getting widow's benefits while in her 50s. What's going on?

A: She possibly might be getting benefits as a disabled widow. Women who are disabled can get widow's benefits as early as age 50. I usually don't mention that fact in this column because it is frankly very difficult to qualify for such benefits. A woman has to be rather severely disabled — and the disability must have started within a specified timeframe that's too messy to explain in the limited space I have.

If this widow has minor children in her care, she might be getting what Social Security calls "mother's benefits." Those payments are made to a widow of any age who is caring for her deceased husband's children — if the kids are under age 16.

If she's not disabled, and if she doesn't have minor kids at home, then either she is lying to you about her Social Security eligibility, or maybe she's fibbing about her age!

Q: You always write about women qualifying for various kinds of spousal benefits. But what about us men? Can we get Social Security from our wives or ex-wives?

A: Sure. But that's a "sure" followed by a big "IF." Almost all Social Security rules are gender neutral. Just as a woman might qualify for a wife's or widow's benefit from her husband or ex-husband, a man might qualify for a husband's or widower's benefit from his wife or ex-wife.

In other words, Social Security treats everyone equally. The problem is society has not treated all women equally. Because women generally make less money than men, and because women generally spend less time in the paid labor force than men do, women tend to get much smaller Social Security payments than men do.

Because they get smaller benefits on their own accounts, millions of women qualify for dependent's benefits from a husband's Social Security record. On the other hand, men generally don't qualify for these supplemental dependent benefits because their own Social Security payments are much higher.