Social Security's Benefits for Spouses and Survivors

Social Security doesn't just pay retirement benefits to retired workers; in some circumstances, it also provides benefits to a worker's spouse or ex-spouse and to a deceased worker's surviving spouse. Here are the ins and outs of spousal and survivor benefits.

Spousal Benefits

Spouses of workers are entitled to benefits if they are least 62 years of age, or any age if caring for a child who is under 16 years old.  The spouse choosing to collect at full retirement age is entitled to an amount equal to one-half of the worker's full retirement benefit, even if the spouse has not worked or does not have enough Social Security credits to qualify for his or her own Social Security benefits. If the spouse files before his or her full retirement age, the amount will be reduced. (To compute the amount of this reduction, click here.) In addition, the worker must have filed for Social Security retirement benefits and be receiving them in order for the spouse to collect benefits on the worker's record.

If you could receive more from Social Security based on your own earnings record than through the spousal benefit, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will automatically provide you with the larger benefit. If you had reached your full retirement age (and you were born before January 2, 1954), you could elect to receive spousal benefits and delay taking your benefits, allowing your own delayed retirement credits to accrue, and switch to your own benefit at a later date. However, you could not elect to receive spousal benefits before your retirement age and later switch to your own benefits. Individuals born on or after January 2, 1954, will not be able to choose to take spousal benefits at their full retirement age.  The SSA provides the higher benefit, and delayed retirement credits on your own work record will not accrue.

If you begin collecting your spousal benefit before your full retirement age, your spousal benefit will be permanently reduced.  But if your spouse retires early, but you wait until your full retirement age, you will still receive benefits based on one-half of his or her full retirement benefit.  

For more from the SSA on spousal benefits, click here.

Divorced spouses

An ex-spouse is also entitled to receive one half of the worker's full retirement benefit as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. A remarried spouse cannot collect a former spouse's benefits unless the later marriage also ends (whether by death, divorce or annulment). In addition, the former spouse's benefit must be more than the divorced spouse would receive on his or her own record. 

Unlike a current spouse, a divorced spouse can begin receiving benefits even before the worker has applied for benefits. The worker must be at least 62 years old and the divorce must have been final for at least two years.

For more from the Social Security Administration on qualifying for divorced spouse benefits, click here.

Survivor Benefits

If you are the spouse of a worker who has died, you are entitled to the worker's full retirement benefits once you reach your full retirement age. If the worker delayed retirement, the survivor's benefit will be higher. Survivors are entitled to benefits even if they are divorced as long as they had been married for at least 10 years. If you file for benefits after age 60 but below your full retirement age, you will receive a reduced percentage of the worker's benefits. Surviving spouses who are younger than 60 receive benefits only in limited circumstances, such as cases of disability or caring for a disabled child.

For more from the Social Security Administration on the requirements for survivor benefits, click here.

For more information on Social Security, click here.