Social Security

Collecting Social Security Benefits as a Spouse

Collecting Social Security Benefits as a Spouse

If you are married, or were married in the past and the marriage lasted at least 10 years before you divorced, you may be eligible to collect spousal benefits through the Social Security Administration.

Gail Kellner

Published November 30th, 2020

Updated December 17th, 2020

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • You may be entitled to spousal retirement benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA), which is 50% of your spouse’s benefit
  • You may qualify even if you divorced, if the marriage lasted at least ten years
  • You can only collect spousal benefits or your own benefit, but not both

If you are married, or were married in the past and the marriage lasted at least 10 years before you divorced, you may be eligible to collect spousal benefits through the Social Security Administration. The SSA recognizes that people who raised families or contributed to society in other ways are entitled to a spousal benefit based on their spouse’s primary insurance benefit.

To be eligible, you must:

  • Be married for at least a year before filing
  • Be at least 62 years old
  • Your spouse must already be receiving benefits

If you were married in the past but are now divorced, you still may be able to collect spousal benefits off of your ex-spouse’s earnings history. The catch is that the marriage must have lasted at least ten years. You must also have been divorced for at least two years and you must not have remarried. If you’ve been married and divorced multiple times, choose whichever spouse had the highest income provided the marriages lasted longer than ten years. Unlike couples who are still married, you can receive spousal benefits even if said spouse has not filed for benefits, although he/she must be at least 62.

How Much Social Security Do You Get?

Your spousal benefit will be 50% of your spouse’s benefit at full retirement age. Full retirement age (FRA) is roughly 66 and will soon be 67 depending on when you were born. You can either claim your own benefits or you can claim spousal benefits, whichever one is higher, but not both.

If you were born before January 2, 1954, you can choose to receive spousal benefits only, and delay taking your own benefits until later. This way, you can delay until you earn delayed retirement credits and/or the money will continue to grow. However, if you were born after January 2, 1954, this option is no longer available.

If you were born after 1954, and your spouse has already retired, the SSA deems that you are automatically applying for spousal benefits at the same time, and will give you the higher amount. You won’t be able to claim your own benefit and then switch at a later date. If your spouse hasn’t filed yet, you can choose to receive your own benefits now and switch to spousal benefits later.

How Early Retirement Affects Benefits

If you start collecting your Social Security benefits for yourself before FRA, your benefit will be permanently reduced. It’s also true that if you start collecting spousal benefits before you reach FRA, those benefits will also be permanently reduced, unless you’re caring for a qualifying child.

However, if you delay retirement for yourself until age 70, you’ll earn delayed retirement credits that will increase your Social Security income beyond your projected FRA amount. Spousal benefits don’t earn any benefits past full retirement age, so you can start spousal benefits as soon as you reach that milestone. The SSA has an online calculator, so you can see exactly when you take benefits will affect how much you get. Electing at the earliest possible age can reduce your benefits by as much as 35%.

The one exception is that if you’re caring for a qualifying child. A qualifying child is someone who is either under 16 or receives Social Security Disability Benefits (SSDI). In this case, your spousal benefits will not be reduced, although you still have to be at least 62.

What to Know If You Become a Widow or Widower

If you are a widow or a widower, you can start collecting survivor’s benefits when you turn 60, or 50 if you’re disabled. You can receive full benefits at FRA, or a reduced amount if you take benefits starting at 60. The amount of the benefits you would receive is somewhere between 70 ½ and 99% of your spouse’s benefits, depending on how old you were when you started taking those benefits.

If you are divorced and your ex-spouse dies, you are eligible for the same benefit as the current spouse, assuming the marriage lasted at least ten years and you are not remarried.

If you are a widow or widower and still working, you could apply to receive survivor’s benefits and then switch to your own benefit amount later. If your own benefit at 70 will be higher, you could switch, but you can’t collect survivor’s benefits and your own benefits at the same time.

You also get a one-time lump sum payment of $255 when your spouse dies.

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Final thoughts

Figuring out when to claim benefits and how to get the most money you qualify for can be hard to figure out. A Certified Financial PlannerⓇ can help you sort through all the SSA’s rules and regulations so you get the maximum benefit.

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Gail Kellner

Gail Kellner lives with her husband, two sons, and various fur-children. She writes about personal finance and insurance mostly, with a little bit of parenting thrown in. She also writes YA Fantasy fiction in her spare time, and her first YA novel will be published later this year.

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