When can widows get Social Security disability benefits?

Question: My husband died two years ago. He was 63. He was collecting Social Security benefits when he died, but the payments stopped right after I reported his death. Social Security told me I can’t get survivor benefits until I’m 60. I’m 55 now.

After my husband died, I tried to find a job, but had no luck. No one would hire me because I have no experience — I never really worked, except for a couple of years after I dropped out of high school. Now, because of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, I can’t work even if I could find a job. I can’t even walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath and having aches and pains. Can I get disability benefits?

Answer: It’s true that as a widow, you can normally collect survivor benefits based on your spouse’s earning record with Social Security once you turn 60. However, if you’re disabled, you can collect survivor benefits earlier.

If you are at least 50 years old and disabled, and your disability started within seven years of your spouse’s death, you can receive Social Security benefits based on your husband’s earnings record. Assuming you don’t have children collecting benefits on your husband’s record, you can receive 71.5% of your husband’s SSDI benefit amount.

That said, Social Security must find you have a disability that prevents you from doing substantial amount of work. You generally have to either meet the requirements of one of Social Security’s listed disabilities (your medical conditions probably don’t qualify) or prove that there are no jobs that you can do, even simple sit-down jobs that require no walking or lifting.

Luckily, Social Security has a special vocational profile for people in your situation that may make it easier for you to qualify for disability. Social Security must automatically find you disabled if you:

  • are age 55 or older
  • have no “past relevant work” (no substantial gainful activity within the last 15 years)
  • have no formal schooling past the 11th grade, and
  • have a severe impairment.

It is much easier to prove that you have a severe impairment than to prove that you meet the requirements of a listed disability or that there are no jobs you can do. The SSA defines a “severe” impairment as one that significantly limits your ability to perform one activity needed to do most jobs, such as:

  • walking, sitting, standing, pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying items
  • hearing, speaking, or seeing
  • understanding and following simple directions, or
  • interacting with co-workers and supervisors, or adjusting to changes in the workplace.

It seems that, with your medical condition, Social Security should find that your condition is severe since your ability to do physical activities sounds significantly limited. In fact, for Social Security to deny you by saying your impairments weren’t severe, the agency would have to find that you have only slight abnormalities that have no more than a minimal effect on your ability to work.