Key Differences Between Social Security Survivor and Spousal Benefits

Survivor and spousal benefits are similar, but not identical

Two woman looking up Social Security rules online.
It's important for women to understand how their survivor and spousal benefits work. Westend61/Getty Images

Benefit formulas and length of marriage rules vary depending on the type of Social Security benefit. Below are a few nuanced differences between survivor benefits and spousal benefits.

Effect of Delayed Retirement 

When you wait to begin your Social Security benefits not only does your benefit amount go up, but in addition, 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.

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.

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 what is called a restricted application - 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 new Social Security rules which became law in November 2015.

 

If you are trying to decide what claiming plan will give you the most benefits 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 out more.

Length of Marriage Requirements Differ Slightly

The rules around how long 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 on a spousal benefit on an ex-spouse’s record