Can I Get Spousal Social Security Benefits?

This illustration describes Social Security Benefits for Widows and Widowers including "Who is Eligible? You are Eligible if you were married for nine months or more to someone who has passed away," "How much can you get? (Depends on four things)," "Whether the deceased spouse had begun collecting benefits," "The deceased spouse's insurance amount (PIA)," "Whether the deceased spouse reached their FRA before their death," and "The age of the surviving spouse."

 @ The Balance 2018

Whether or not you have worked during your lifetime and earned Social Security, you may qualify for benefits on a spouse's record. This is the case even if you are divorced or widowed.

As with regular Social Security benefits, you qualify to begin receiving benefits at age 62 (you may qualify earlier for survivor benefits, as explained below). Typically, the amount you receive is reduced the earlier you start collecting before full retirement age. That is why deciding when you and your spouse should begin to apply for your benefits matters.

Here is more information on how it works.

If You Do Not Qualify for Benefits on Your Own

If you did not work enough in your life to qualify for Social Security benefits on your own, you could get one half of your spouse's full retirement benefit once you reach full retirement age, and you will qualify for your spouse's Medicare at age 65. This spousal benefit is in addition to your spouse's benefit and does not affect the amount your spouse will actually receive.

You can begin collecting spousal benefits at age 62, if your spouse has applied for benefits at that point. But an early retirement reduces your benefits. The amount of your benefit is reduced based on the number of months until you reach full retirement age. Say your full retirement age is 67. If you start your retirement benefits at age 62, your monthly benefit amount is reduced by about 32.5% of the amount your spouse would receive if their benefits started at full retirement age. That means:

  • At age 62, you'd get 35% of your spouse's full benefit
  • At age 63, you'd get 37.5% of your spouse's full benefit
  • At age 64, you'd get 42% of your spouse's full benefit
  • At age 65, you'd get 46% of your spouse's full benefit
  • At age 66, you'd get 50% of your spouse's full benefit

Determining If You Qualify for Your Own Social Security Benefits

If you worked and earned your own Social Security credits in your lifetime, you can get a combination of your own benefits and spousal benefits. If your spouse's benefits are higher than your own, your benefits will readjust to the higher amount.

Spouses can strategically coordinate when to claim Social Security in order to maximize the benefits they receive as a couple. For example, let's assume you were to start receiving Social Security at age 62. You will not get the full amount of your own benefits, but you can increase the amount you receive if you qualify for spousal benefits.

Alternatively, you could wait. Once you reach full retirement age and are eligible to receive your own retirement benefits as well as a spousal benefit, you can request to have your own payments suspended until age 70 and earn delayed retirement credits (or your spouse can choose this option instead). This approach will increase the amount of your benefit payment at age 70.

If You Are Divorced

If you were married to the same spouse for 10 years or longer and that person worked enough to qualify for Social Security, you can receive benefits on the ex-spouse's record even if he or she is remarried.

To qualify, you must be unmarried. If you remarried, you do not qualify for benefits from the first spouse unless the subsequent marriage ends and you have been divorced for at least two years. If your spouse has died and you remarry after you reach age 60, your survivor benefits are unaffected.

If You Are a Widow or Widower

A widow or widower receives something called survivor benefits from Social Security. The rules are similar to other spousal benefits but survivor benefits can begin as early as age 60. Of course, as with other benefits, your benefits are reduced if you begin collecting before full retirement age.

If you are a divorced widow or widower, the rules are similar. However, if you remarry before age 60, you cannot receive survivor benefits while married. If you remarry after age 60, you can qualify to receive survivor benefits. These benefits are complex, so it's best to discuss them with a Social Security representative.

No Need to Apply as a Spouse

When you, your spouse, or your ex-spouse apply for benefits, the system will make note of your eligibility for benefits as a spouse. You do not need to make a separate request. Even if your spouse or ex-spouse has reached the eligible age for benefits but has not applied, you can start collecting benefits on his or her record. But if you have questions about whether you qualify as a spouse, you can visit your local Social Security office or call 1-800-772-1213.

Of course, if you continue to work or receive a pension from a previous employer, the amount you can receive will be limited. And there are limits to how much you can receive in total.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.