Social Security Benefits for Spouses and Children

Social Security card and money.A little-known feature of the Social Security system is that in addition to paying retirement benefits for the retired worker, it may provide benefits to the worker's spouse, an ex-spouse if the marriage lasted at least 10 years, and dependent children and grandchildren, depending on the circumstances. Moreover, these benefits can be paid all at the same time.

Spousal Benefits

Your spouse is entitled to an amount equal to one-half of your full primary insurance amount (PIA). In order to receive this benefit, your spouse must be at least 62 years old or caring for your child entitled to receive benefits on your work record who is younger than 16 or disabled.  Also, you must be receiving Social Security retirement benefits in order for your spouse to receive them as well.

It may be that your spouse could receive more from Social Security based on her own earnings record than through your spousal benefit. If this is the case, the Social Security Administration (SSA) automatically provides your spouse the larger benefit.

If you retire early, your spouse will still receive benefits based on one-half of the PIA you would have received had you waited until full retirement age to retire. But in order to receive a full half of your PIA, your spouse must wait to begin receiving the retirement benefits at her full retirement age. If she opts to receive benefits before that time, she will be penalized according to a formula similar to that used to compute the reduced benefits of workers who retire early. 

Find additional information on spousal benefits on the SSA website.

Children’s Benefits

Children and even grandchildren who are unmarried and dependent upon you (the retired worker) for their support are eligible for benefits. To be eligible, the child must be under age 18, under age 19 but still in elementary school or high school, or over age 18 but have become mentally or physically disabled prior to age 22.

Children generally receive an amount equal to one-half of your PIA, up to a "family maximum" benefit. The family maximum is calculated when you reach age 62, and is determined by a formula similar to that used to determine the PIA.

The family maximum depends on the amount of your benefit and the number of family members who also qualify on your work record. The total varies, but it is generally equal to about 150 to 180 percent of your retirement benefit. Every January 1 the family maximum benefit may be increased to reflect a rise in the cost of living.

Because of the maximum, the more dependents you have, the less each of their individual benefits will be, although your own benefit will not be reduced. For example, let's say Henry's PIA is $1,500 and his family maximum is $2,300. Henry would receive his $1,500 a month, and his wife, Beatrice, and their dependent child, Barbara, would split the remaining $800 a month ($2,300 - $1,500). If Henry and Beatrice had two children who qualified for benefits, the remaining $800 after Henry's benefit would be evenly divided three ways.

Upon the worker's death, dependent children receive 75 percent of the worker's PIA, up to the family maximum, until they outgrow their eligibility.

Benefits for a Divorced Spouse

If you are the retired worker, your divorced spouse is eligible to receive an amount equal to one-half of your PIA, provided the marriage lasted at least 10 years.

The rules are similar to those for spousal benefits described above, with two notable exceptions. First, your divorced spouse can begin receiving benefits even before you have begun receiving benefits yourself. The SSA does require, however, that you be at least 62 years old and that the divorce have been final for at least two years if you have not yet reached full retirement age. Second, your divorced spouse's benefits are not counted in your "family maximum" benefit described above, and they do not affect that maximum.

Divorced spouses who had more than one marriage that lasted at least 10 years do not receive multiple benefit checks, one for each marriage. But the SSA does automatically choose the former marriage that will yield the largest benefit to the ex-spouse. Divorced spouses generally cannot collect benefits on their former spouse's record unless their later marriage ends (whether by death, divorce, or annulment).

For more information on benefits for divorced spouses, visit the SSA website.

Survivor Benefits

When you die, certain family members may be eligible to receive monthly survivor benefits, including:

  • A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if they have a disability).

  • A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances.

  • A widow or widower at any age who is caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or has a disability and is receiving child’s benefits.

  • An unmarried child of the deceased who is younger than age 18 (or up to age 19 if they are a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school) or age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.

  • Parents, age 62 or older, who were dependent on the deceased for at least half of their support.

If your spouse is at full retirement age when you die, then the spouse begins receiving your actual benefits. This is true even if you and spouse were divorced, so long as you had been married for at least 10 years. 

While a spouse can claim survivor's benefits as early as age 60, the benefits will be permanently reduced. If the surviving spouse claims benefits between age 60 and full retirement age, he or she receives a reduced percentage of the your benefits. At age 60, the spouse will receive 71.5 percent of the actual benefits.

If the spouse waits to collect, this percentage increases each year until the spouse reaches full retirement age, at which point he or she can receive 100 percent of the actual benefits. A surviving spouse who is age 50 to 59 also receives 71.5 percent of the actual benefits.

Spouses caring for a child and the decedent’s dependents receive 75 percent of the decedent’s actual benefit. Dependent parents receive 75 percent each or 82.5 percent if there is only one parent.

If a surviving spouse, including a divorced spouse, remarries before turning age 60, then the spouse is no longer eligible for benefits unless the new marriage ends. Spouses who remarry after age 60 are still eligible for survivor’s benefits. 

Finally, the surviving spouse (if not divorced) of a deceased worker or, if there is no spouse, the children under age 18 are entitled to a lump sum death benefit of $255.

Read more on survivor benefits and Social Security benefits.