Differences Between Social Security Survivor and Spousal Benefits

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If you're a married and in your 60s or if you are helping parents approaching their Golden Years, then you probably have Social Security on your mind. It is important to bone up on the various benefits that come with Social Security. Benefit formulas and length of marriage rules vary depending on the type of Social Security benefits being sought.

Key Takeaways

  • Delaying retirement benefits will not increase spousal benefits, but survivor benefits will increase.
  • Unless you were born before 1954, you cannot switch between your own benefits and your spousal benefits, but you can switch between your own benefits and survivor benefits.
  • The length of time you've been married may affect your eligibility for survivor and spousal benefits, but you will be eligible for survivor benefits first.

Effect of Delayed Retirement 

When you wait until the full retirement age of 70 to begin collecting your Social Security benefits not only does your benefit amount go up, but the survivor benefit paid out to a surviving spouse also goes up. Survivor benefit amounts include any delayed retirement credits accumulated up until the passing of the earner. Spousal benefits do not carry this inclusion of delayed retirement credits. When you delay retirement, you can earn credits, which will result in a benefit increase of 5.5% to 8% per year.

There is not a benefit to waiting beyond your full retirement age to collect a spousal benefit. If you are married and you are the higher earner of the two, there can be a benefit to waiting to begin your own benefits because this will also increase the available survivor benefit.

For married couples, this means joint social security benefits are often maximized when the lower-earning spouse begins benefits earlier—as long as those benefits would not be lost due to the earnings test while the higher-earning spouse delays benefits until age 70.

The earnings test is a calculation used by Social Security to withhold benefits if the earnings exceed the specified level. The test only applies to those below the normal retirement age.

Switching Strategies Allowed for Survivor Benefits

As a widow/widower, you can begin benefits based on your own earnings record and later switch to survivor’s benefits, or begin survivor’s benefits and later switch to benefits based on your own record. Using either of these strategies entails filing a restricted application, which means you are restricting your application to either your own benefit amount or a survivor benefit amount. 

In contrast, such switching strategies are not allowed between spouse’s benefits and benefits based on your own record unless you were born on or before January 1, 1954, and have already reached your full retirement age. This date of birth rule came into play due to Social Security rules which became law in November 2015. 

If you are trying to decide what claiming plan will give you the most benefits, then your best option is to use a Social Security calculator to accurately model these types of scenarios. The calculators do the number crunching for you and show you which options pay more.

Length of Marriage Requirements Differ Slightly

The rules surrounding the length of time you need to be married to claim different types of benefits vary. Below is a summary of the requirements:

  • 9 months: to be eligible for a social security survivor benefit on your spouse’s record
  • 1 year: to be eligible for a spousal benefit on a current spouse's work record
  • 2 years: if your divorced spouse is 62, but has not yet filed, you must be divorced two years before you can claim a spousal benefit based on their record. If they have already filed for benefits there is no two-year requirement for claiming on an ex-spouse’s record.
  • 10 years: must have been married to claim a spousal benefit on an ex-spouse’s record