Differences Between Social Security Survivor and Spousal Benefits

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You may have Social Security on your mind if you're married and you're in your 60s, or if you're helping your parents who are approaching their golden years. Knowing the terms and rules that apply to spousal and survivor benefits can be key to your planning. The rules can vary based on the type of Social Security benefits you're hoping to collect.

Key Takeaways

  • Delaying benefits will not increase spousal benefits, but survivor benefits will go up.
  • You can't switch between your own and spousal benefits unless you were born before 1954. But you can switch between your own benefits and survivor benefits.
  • The length of time you've been married can affect both survivor and spousal benefits. You can claim survivor benefits first.

Effect of Delayed Retirement 

Not only does your benefit amount go up, but the survivor benefit paid out to a surviving spouse also goes up if you wait to begin collecting your Social Security benefits until you reach full retirement age. That's age 70 as of 2021.

Survivor benefit amounts include any delayed retirement credits that accrue until the passing of the earner. But this isn't the case with spousal benefits. It will result in an increase of 5.5% to 8% per year if you delay retirement and keep on earning credits.

There's no plus in waiting beyond your full retirement age to collect a spousal benefit. But you can gain from waiting to begin your own benefits if you're married and if you're the higher earner. This will also increase the survivor benefit.

The Earnings Test

Joint benefits for married couples often increase when the spouse who earns less begins taking benefits earlier. But this depends on those benefits not being lost due to the earnings test while the spouse who earns more delays benefits until age 70.

The earnings test is used by the Social Security Administration to withhold benefits if the earnings exceed a certain level.


The test only applies to those who haven't yet reached the normal retirement age.

Switching Your Plan for Survivor Benefits

You can begin taking benefits as a widow or widower based on your own earnings record. Then you can later switch to survivor’s benefits. You might also begin survivor’s benefits and later switch to benefits based on your own record. Both choices mean filing a restricted application. This means you're restricting your request to either your own benefit amount or a survivor benefit amount. 

Switching isn't allowed between spouse’s benefits and benefits based on your own record unless you were born on or before Jan. 1, 1954. You must also have reached your full retirement age. The date of birth rule came into play due to changes that became law in November 2015. 

You can use a Social Security calculator if you're trying to decide which claiming plan will pay you the most. These programs will crunch the numbers for you and show you which options pay more.

Length of Marriage Requirements

The rules vary for how long you must be married to claim these types of benefits. It's nine months to be eligible for a survivor benefit on your spouse’s record. It increases to one year to be eligible for a spousal benefit on a current spouse's work record.

Two years are required if your divorced spouse has reached age 62 but hasn't yet filed. You must be divorced for two years before you can claim a spousal benefit based on their record. There's no two-year rule for claiming on an ex-spouse’s record if they've filed for benefits.

You must have been married for 10 years to claim a spousal benefit on an ex-spouse’s record.