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Widowhood: Economic Issues

State Law And Widowhood Status

State law can influence resources of surviving spouses in two important ways: (1) by defining marriage, and, (2) by specifying property ownership and property inheritance rights. Generally, the Social Security program recognizes an individual as a survivor for purposes of receipt of survivor benefits if the courts of the state in which the deceased spouse was living at the time of death would recognize the union as a valid marriage or would recognize the survivor as having the same status as a widow for purposes of sharing in the distribution of personal property when the deceased left no will. Uncertainty under state law about the legal status of a marriage may arise if the relevant state does not recognize the marriage—even if performed legally elsewhere—if a prior divorce was not completed or filed, or if common-law marriage is not recognized in that state. Because Social Security does not obtain or maintain records on marital status prior to benefit application, the documentation of marriage, divorce, and death of a spouse is an important part of establishing eligibility for survivor benefits.

State property and inheritance laws are important in determining the assets inherited by survivors. In so-called community property states, assets and income acquired during marriage are considered equally owned by each spouse, and a surviving spouse has ownership rights to half of all property acquired during marriage, even if the deceased spouse had willed more than their share of property to another person. In so-called common-law property states, assets and income are considered to be owned and controlled by the income-earning spouse, although a spouse may still be able to claim a share of a deceased spouse’s assets under the principle that a working spouse has an obligation to provide for the economic well-being of the other spouse.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4Widowhood: Economic Issues - Economic Effects Of Widowhood, Survivor Benefits: The U.s. Social Security Program, Survivor Protection: Employer-provided Pensions And Individual Accounts