Social Security Disability and Common-Law Marriage

By Tom Streissguth

Social Security pays disability benefits to qualified applicants who are unable to work due to a long-lasting illness or permanent injury. According to the Social Security rules, the spouse of a beneficiary can also draw benefits under certain conditions. Although federal law governs Social Security, state laws come into play when the question of common-law marriage arises.

Spouse Benefit Payments

Under the Social Security rules, the legal spouse of a disabled or retired beneficiary can draw spouse benefits starting at the age of 62. If the spouse waits until full retirement age -- which is 65 to 67, depending on the year of birth -- the spouse benefit is one-half of the disabled worker's benefit. Before full retirement age, Social Security reduces the amount of the benefit, so the earlier you begin taking spouse benefits, the lower the payments will be. At 62, for example, the spouse benefit would be only 35 percent of the covered worker's benefit. If the spouse would earn more on his own work record, Social Security pays the higher amount instead.

Common-Law Marriage

Social Security pays spouse benefits only to individuals who are legally married to beneficiaries, although divorced spouses in some cases also qualify. If you have not legally married, but have established a legally recognized common-law marriage, you may also qualify. Social Security relies on individual state laws to determine your eligibility. If the state you reside in recognizes the common-law marriage, so does the Social Security Administration, and spouse benefits are available starting at age 62.

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Qualifying for Common-Law Status

Not all states recognize common-law marriage. The ones that do set down specific requirements to prove there is a valid marriage. For example, the couple must typically live together; hold themselves out to the general public as married; use joint bank accounts; and share the same last name. As of mid-2013, Alabama, Colorado, District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Utah allow common-law marriage. Even if a state allows domestic partnerships, civil unions or same-sex marriages, however, this does not mean it allows common-law marriage.

Out-of-State Common-Law Marriages

Social Security makes the eligibility determination when the spouse actually applies for benefits, using the laws of the state where the applicant lives at that time. But there is one exception to that general rule: Social Security recognizes a common-law marriage if the couple has moved from one state that legally recognizes such unions to another that does not. As long as the laws of the individual state extend legal status to common-law couples that have moved from another state, spouse benefits would be available.

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Couples often mistakenly assume that an annulment is an easier, cheaper and quicker alternative to a divorce, but in fact, obtaining an annulment is generally more difficult. State laws allow annulment in only limited circumstances. Couples cannot get an annulment unless their situation fits one of their state's legal grounds, or bases, for annulment. The process and bases for annulment varies by state, but annulment generally is not based on the length of time the couple has been married.

Can a Common Law Wife Claim Widow's Benefits?

Marriage determines eligibility for many government and insurance benefits, and most spouses have little trouble proving their marriage with a marriage certificate. However, marriage doesn’t always require a government-issued license and certificate. In a few states, couples can marry informally, creating a common law marriage. Generally, one spouse can collect benefits when the other spouse dies if their relationship met the requirements for common law marriage in their state.

Can a Wife Be Deported if She Filed for Divorce?

Non-citizens can get a quick path to United States citizenship by marrying a U.S. citizen, but those marriages don't always work out. Whether it's because the marriage began as a sham or developed problems along the way, divorces can have citizenship implications. Depending on how long the spouses were married and what type of residence the non-citizen spouse has, she could face deportation upon divorce.

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