When a person dies, their current or former spouse can often start getting their Social Security benefits. Whether this happens depends on several different factors.
Even if no one has died, you can collect a Social Security spousal benefit based on your current or former spouse's benefits. This amount will be equal to half of what your spouse gets if that’s higher than what you’d get on your own.
Here’s what you need to know about getting this income when you retire.
Who Can Get a Spousal Benefit?
Current spouses and ex-spouses can both get the spousal benefit. You must have been married for over 10 years to get this income.
You also must be age 62 to file for or receive a spousal benefit. You can also wait longer. If you wait until you are at full retirement age (up to 67, depending on when you were born) to file, you will get a larger amount than if you file sooner.
If you are still married, you must wait until your spouse files for their own benefit. There are other rules if you aren't still married.
You can receive a spousal benefit even if your ex-spouse has not yet filed for his or her own benefits. Your ex-spouse must be age 62 or older.
Taking a spousal benefit does not reduce or change the amount your current spouse, ex-spouse, or ex-spouse's current spouse may receive.
How Much Do You Get?
There are different types of Social Security benefits that you can claim. You can take Social Security income based on your own work history and earnings. Or, you can collect a spousal benefit instead.
If you take the benefits based on your spouse's work history and earnings, you will get 50% of the amount of your spouse’s Social Security benefit.
This amount is calculated at their full retirement age (FRA). FRA depends on when you were born. You can check the Social Security website to find out how old you or your spouse need to be to reach FRA.
Social Security calculates and pays the higher amount.
If you were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954, once you reach your FRA, you can choose to receive only the spousal benefit. You can apply for this by filing what is known as a restricted application.
This lets you put off getting your own retirement benefit. Your benefit will keep growing until you file at a later age. If you were born any later than Jan. 1, 1954, you no longer have this option.
How Does Early Retirement Affect Benefits?
Social Security is based on your lifetime earnings. Anyone will lose part of their own benefit if they retire early.
If you begin getting a spousal benefit before you reach your FRA, your benefit will be permanently lower. This is true unless you’re caring for a qualifying child. Depending on how early you retire, this income will be reduced by as much as 35%.
You can find out the exact amount by putting various ages into the Social Security Administration’s website. The website will show you what you can get at different ages and how much working longer will change your income after you retire.
Your spousal benefits won't be reduced if you're caring for a child who is under 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits.
If your spouse and/or you want to take Social Security benefits early, you will need to think about the long-term effects before you do. Taking early benefits will lower the income that may be paid out over your lifetime.
It will also lower the benefit that the surviving spouse can get after one of you passes away. Married couples should plan how and when they should each begin taking their benefit.
You can run these numbers yourself to see how it works by using an online Social Security calculator. You can also talk to a financial planner for advice on how to plan your benefits.
What Happens if One Spouse Dies?
If your spouse passes away, you can collect a survivor’s benefit as early as age 60. You will be able to get the maximum benefit, or the full amount of your spouse's monthly Social Security payment if you’ve reached FRA.
Before that, it’s reduced by 71.5%-99%. The amount it's reduced by depends on how many years over 60 you are.
If you are the surviving spouse, you can restrict your application to file for either their own benefit or the survivor benefit. Later, you can switch to the other amount.
You might do this if your own monthly payment at age 70 would be larger than your spouse's payment. You could claim the spousal benefit for several years, and then at age 70 switch to your own benefit.
If you are divorced and your ex-spouse dies, you might be able to get the same benefits as any current spouse. This is true if your marriage lasted at least 10 years or you are caring for a qualifying child.
Once you and your spouse have started getting Social Security benefits, the surviving spouse will have to choose one benefit. You can take either your spouse's monthly payment or your own. You cannot get both.
If you live in the same household when your spouse passes away, you will also be able to get a one-time lump-sum payment of $255.
How Much Will Your Divorced Spouse Receive?
If you have not applied for retirement benefits, but can qualify for them, your ex-spouse can receive benefits on your record if you have been divorced for at least two continuous years.
If your ex-spouse is eligible for retirement benefits on their own record, we will pay that amount first. If the benefit on your record is higher, they will get an additional amount on your record so that the combination of benefits equals that higher amount.
The Bottom Line
Workers who delay taking Social Security until they are 70 years of age get a higher monthly payment. When married couples choose to delay taking the benefit of the spouse who earns more, it acts as a kind of life insurance. In many cases, it can provide $50,000 to $250,000 of life insurance. Married couples should plan how to get the most out of both their spousal and survivor benefits.