Dear Penny: Can I Get Survivor Benefits if Our Marriage Record Was Destroyed?

A widow hugs a photo of her late husband.
Getty Images
Dear Penny,

I am a widow. My husband was 53 when he died. He was collecting Social Security disability for about two years preceding his death.

I am nearing retirement age and was planning on taking his Social Security when I reach my full retirement age, and then switching to mine when I turn 70.

Is this option still available? Would I be eligible for 100% of his? When I called Social Security, the lady said, “It will be a surprise.” Surprise, my foot! I need to know.

I also may have a difficult time proving we were married. Our wedding license burned up in a recent house fire. We were married in the Bahamas, and I doubt they keep records. I might be OK in that I had the marriage license at the time of his death and used it to collect the one-time $255 death benefit, so it may be in the system. That may be my only salvation. 

I have received so many conflicting answers regarding being able to switch from his to mine when I’m 70.

-S.

Dear S.,

I don’t think you’re in for any big surprises. As long as you’re eligible for your late husband’s survivor benefits, you’re allowed to start survivor benefits, then switch to your own higher Social Security benefit later on. And even without the actual marriage license, you should be able to prove that you were married.

Let’s start with the first issue, though. I suspect that the confusion you’re running into stems from the fact that the rules have changed for spousal benefits, which are paid to spouses and ex-spouses based on the work record of someone who’s still alive.

Got a Burning Money Question?

Get practical advice for your money challenges from Robin Hartill, a Certified Financial Planner and the voice of Dear Penny.







DISCLAIMER: Select questions will appear in The Penny Hoarder’s “Dear Penny” column. We are unable to answer every letter. We reserve the right to edit and publish your questions. But don’t worry — your identity will remain anonymous. Dear Penny columns are for general informational purposes only, but we promise to provide sound advice based on our own research and insights.

In the past, married couples often used what was known as a restricted application. One spouse would file an application for spousal benefits only as early as age 62. Then, they’d switch to their own retirement later on. This was a popular way to maximize benefits because the longer you wait to take Social Security, the bigger your checks will be.

But a 2015 law ended this strategy for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1954. However, there are exceptions for spouses who qualify for disability benefits or are caring for a child who’s younger than 16 or disabled.

The important thing to know is that this change doesn’t apply to survivor benefits. You can claim survivor benefits as early as 60 or age 50 if you’re disabled. Then you can switch over to your own benefit as early as 62 or as late as age 70 if you want the maximum benefit.

Unlike retirement benefits, survivor benefits cap out at full retirement age. You’ll get 100% of your late husband’s benefit at that point. So you’ll get the biggest Social Security checks possible by doing what you’re planning.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s what Social Security’s website says: If you’re eligible for both survivor and retirement benefits but haven’t yet applied, “You can apply for retirement or survivors benefits now and switch to the other (higher) benefit later.” For all the rules on this topic, check out Social Security’s publication “If You Are the Survivor,” which is available online.

You should also be able to document that your marriage did, in fact, exist even if you have to jump through a few more hoops. I don’t know if Social Security would be able to use the one-time $255 payment you received when your husband died as evidence. But in the absence of a marriage certificate, you may still be able to obtain a certified copy of your marriage documents by contacting the U.S. embassy in the Bahamas.

When official documents aren’t available, Social Security will also accept other evidence, like witness statements or photographs from the ceremony. You probably have evidence of the house fire that you could use as proof of why you don’t have the original marriage certificate. I’m guessing you have other documents, like tax returns or property records if you owned a home together, that you could use as additional proof.

Sometimes when you have a complicated situation, you won’t get perfect information by calling Social Security. There are so many complicated rules, and it’s impossible for one person to have the right answer for every scenario. But you can often find the information you need on Social Security’s website, ssa.gov.

Try to find as much information as possible before you call. If what you’re told conflicts with official Social Security information, point out the discrepancy. Ask them to refer you to the exact rule they’re citing. It may also be helpful to take notes during each phone call. Document the time and date of the phone call and the name of the employee you speak with.

Dealing with any bureaucracy can be a headache. But it sounds like you have a smart strategy for maximizing your Social Security. If you do a bit of prep work, I don’t think you’ll encounter any major hurdles in claiming the benefits you’re entitled to.

Once you finally get your finances in order, you want to keep them that way. Here are several moves to make now.

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