Under certain circumstances, family members of a worker who paid into Social Security are eligible to receive payments – in addition to what the worker may receive. Eligible family members can be children, spouses and former spouses. For children it is rare because they must be minors or disabled when the worker retires. Many spouses and ex-spouses are not aware of their entitlement to Social Security spousal benefits.
Social Security Spousal Benefits
When it comes to collecting Social Security it is possible to be eligible under more than one work record, e.g. your own and your spouse’s record (or your own and an ex-spouse’s). However, the SSA (Social Security Administration), will only pay you the highest amount you are entitled to under any one of these work records. So if you are entitled to $1,500/month under your own work record and $1,200/month as a spousal benefit, you will receive $1,500/month.
If you are a spouse of a worker, the eligibility rules for Social Security spousal benefits are:
- You are at least 62;
- The worker must either: a) be drawing Social Security payments or b) have filed with the SSA but suspended receipt of his/her payments temporarily.
If you are a former spouse of a worker, the eligibility requirements are:
- The two of you were married at least 10 years;
- You are at least 62;
- You are currently unmarried (it’s okay if you subsequently married someone else as long as you are now unmarried);
- The worker is at least age 62;
- If the worker has not yet applied for Social Security retirement benefits, your divorce was final at least 2 years ago.
Social Security Spousal Benefit Amount
If you are a qualifying spouse or ex-spouse, at your “full retirement age” (which is somewhere between age 65 and 67 depending on when you were born) you can receive up to 50% of the amount the worker is entitled to receive at their full retirement age. If you claim before your full retirement age, you will receive less. For example, if you claim 4 years before your full retirement age, you’ll receive only 35% of what the worker would receive. You cannot receive more than 50% by waiting until after your full retirement age.
Let’s take an example in which a) you qualify for spousal or ex-spousal benefits; b) the amount exceeds what you would receive under your own work record; c) your full retirement age is say 66; and d) the worker is entitled to a payment of $2,000/month at his/her own full retirement age. As a Social Security spousal or ex-spousal benefit you could receive life-long payments of $700/month (35%) beginning at age 62 or payments of $1,000/month (50%) if you wait until age 66 or later.
If you are married but on the verge of divorce and the length of your marriage is approaching 10 years, it will often be wise to hold off getting divorced until the marriage has lasted 10 years so that you will be eligible for Social Security spousal benefits as a former spouse.
If you remarry after a divorce it only takes a year of remarriage to become eligible based on your new spouse’s work record.
The amount of Social Security spousal or ex-spousal benefit you will receive does not depend at all on the age at which the worker begins to receive his/her Social Security retirement benefits. If you do receive spousal or ex-spousal benefits, this will have no effect on the amount the worker receives.
It’s worth emphasizing that the monthly Social Security spousal benefit is only 50% of what the worker is entitled to. This often means that if you are the one during the marriage who sacrificed your work career to raise the children, your own Social Security benefit at retirement, whether it is based on your own work record or 50% of your spouse’s, may well be significantly less (for the rest of your life!) than the Social Security retirement benefit of the one who kept working full-time during the marriage. If the two of you remain married throughout your retirement, this probably doesn’t matter. But if you end up getting divorced, the stay-at-home parent will be likely be entitled to a significantly lower monthly Social Security payment.