Married more than once? Here’s what that means for Social Security survivor benefits

A woman looks through a camera at a couple dancing at a wedding
If you’ve been married multiple times, your current and former spouses could be eligible for Social Security benefits based on your earnings record, subject to certain requirements.
(Angelo DeSantis / Getty Images)
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Dear Liz: I’m in a second marriage that’s lasted 10 years. Is my wife fully entitled to my Social Security after I die? My first wife and I were married for 19 years. Is my ex entitled to any of it?

Answer: Both your current spouse and your ex could be entitled to survivor benefits based on your work record. Typically someone must be married nine months to qualify for survivor benefits on a current spouse’s record. If the spouses divorced, the marriage must have lasted 10 years. Each survivor benefit can be up to 100% of your benefit. The amount may be reduced if the women start benefits before their own full retirement age, but they don’t have to share — the amount isn’t reduced because you’ve had more than one spouse.

Trusts and taxes

Dear Liz: My parents set up a family trust, which my brother and I have now inherited but not fully distributed. Included in that trust was the understanding that $130,000 would go to my daughter who is now 23. She has not received any of the money yet but would like to receive it within the next year for a down payment on a house. Would it be better to give her half the money this calendar year and half next year, or give her everything at once? I’m thinking there may be tax breaks for first-time home buyers that would offset the tax burden that a sudden increase in income from the inheritance would cause. She has been living on her own for several years and has a full-time job earning about $52,000 per year. She is already taking advantage of her company’s 401(k) match.


Answer: The inheritance won’t be considered income and isn’t taxable as such. Of course, any money the inheritance earns would be taxable. So if your daughter parks the money in a high-yield savings account while she looks for a home, she would pay income tax on any interest earned.

There also isn’t currently a first-time home buyer federal tax credit, although many states have various programs to help people buy homes. These typically do have income limits, although, again, the inheritance itself wouldn’t be considered part of her income.

Before you distribute the money, however, get clear on what exactly the “understanding” is about this money. If the trust clearly states this amount goes to your daughter, that’s one thing. If this money has been allocated to you, however, and you’re complying with your parents’ unwritten wish, you may have to file a gift tax return when the money is distributed. (Gift taxes won’t be due unless you give away millions in your lifetime.) An estate planning attorney can advise you.

The 50/30/20 budget was popularized by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi in their book, “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan.”

April 23, 2023

Helping beneficiaries find documents

Dear Liz: Not so much a question but a follow-up to previous advice in your column. I agree online statements are safe and reasonable but suggest keeping at least one printed statement a year from each account with important papers. Also, take time to place “transfer on death” beneficiaries on each account. My younger brother passed away without a will and most of his accounts were online. I have spent many months unraveling this mess. I had to prove I was next of kin to get at least enough money to be reimbursed for final expenses.

Answer: Your experience is far from unusual, unfortunately. With so much of our financial lives online, we’re just not creating the paper trails that can help executors settle our affairs. Often the executors can’t even open the laptops and phones that could help them track down accounts because those devices are password protected. Digital assets such as photos, frequent flier miles and cryptocurrency may become forever inaccessible.

People can make life easier for their loved ones by keeping an updated list of key passwords and account numbers in a safe place that’s accessible to the person or people who will be settling their estate. That could be an at-home safe or a locked filing cabinet, as long as your trusted person has the combination or key. Another option would be online services such as Everplans, which can allow you to organize documents and name trusted people who can get access to those documents after your death.


Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at