Social Security doesn’t just pay retirement benefits to retired workers. In some circumstances, it also provides benefits to a worker’s spouse, former spouse, or surviving spouse.
Here’s a look at the ins and outs of spousal benefits. (But keep in mind that these are general rules, and how they apply to you could vary based on your specific circumstances.)
Once you reach age 62, assuming you’ve been married for at least 10 years, you can qualify for either (1) your own Social Security payments based on your earnings record, or (2) a “spousal benefit,” which is a portion of what your spouse would be entitled to at full retirement age based on his or her earnings record.
You don’t have to take either of these benefits at age 62. In fact, if you delay receiving them, you’ll collect larger payments when you do start receiving them.
If you start receiving benefits at age 62, you’ll automatically get the larger of the two payments – your own benefit or the spousal benefit.
If you wait until your full retirement age (which is 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954), you can choose between receiving your own benefit and the spousal benefit. At this point, the spousal benefit will be one-half of what your spouse would collect at full retirement age. Choosing the spousal benefit may be wise, even if it’s smaller than your own benefit. That’s because you can further delay receiving your own benefit, which means that your own benefit payments will be even larger when you do start taking them.
You can’t receive a spousal benefit until your spouse has applied for his or her own benefits. However, your spouse doesn’t have to be actually receiving benefits – he or she can apply for benefits and then suspend them in order to build up delayed retirement credits.
If one spouse dies, the other spouse can apply for survivor’s benefits, which are typically equal to the retirement benefits the deceased spouse would receive as of full retirement age. A surviving spouse can apply for survivor’s benefits starting at age 60, although if the spouse applies before his or her own full retirement age, the benefits will be reduced.
If both spouses are receiving benefits at the time one spouse dies, the surviving spouse will continue to receive the larger of the two benefits – but not both.
A divorced spouse is generally entitled to benefits similar to those of a married spouse, as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Further, a divorced spouse can receive benefits even if the “ex” hasn’t applied for his or her own benefits – as long as the ex is eligible to apply for benefits. Divorcing spouses can also receive survivor’s benefits in many cases.