Are survivors divorced spouse’s benefits retroactive?

My new motto is to file early and often. It can be detrimental to wait and file for Social Security disability benefits. Perhaps I am being silly by saying “early and often, ” but the point is to file as soon as you can.
I recently saw someone at my law office with a situation that is probably not uncommon. She had been in a long-term marriage. After 40 years, she and her husband divorced. Ten years later, her former husband died. Two years after his death, she applied for survivors retirement benefits.
Surviving divorced spouses may receive Social Security retirement benefits based on the earnings record of their former spouse beginning at age 60 if the marriage lasted ten or more years. I would have thought that my new client would have been able to receive the benefits retroactively from the time of her ex-husband’s death. I learned that Social Security retirement benefits for survivors do not work like that. The furthest one can go back and obtain benefits is for six months prior to the date of death. Thus in my client’s situation, she lost about 1 and 1/2 years of benefits by waiting to file.
The answer is a little different if the surviving spouse is disabled. If the surviving spouse is disabled, he or she can apply for survivors disability benefits at age 50. The surviving spouse has the same burden of proof as any applicant for SSDI to prove disability. In this situation, the surviving divorced disabled spouse can obtain benefits up to one year retroactively. I have attached Section 1513 from the SSA Handbook which lists the retroactive time periods for both types of benefits.
The one important lesson my client’s inquiry taught me was that people should apply for benefits as soon as they able to do so.

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