Social Security isn't just for retired and disabled workers. While these are the people we most often think of as recipients, many of their family members may also be eligible, even if they've never worked or paid Social Security taxes.
But you can't get benefits just because you want them. You must qualify under one of the categories discussed below.
1. Spousal benefits
Married people are eligible for up to half of a qualifying spouse's benefits at their full retirement age (FRA), which is 66 or 67, depending on their birth year. That means if a worker was eligible for $1,000 per month at FRA, a spouse could potentially get up to $500 per month. But there are a couple of catches. First, spouses cannot claim benefits until the worker signs up for Social Security benefits. Second, the age at which workers claim benefits affects the size of their spouse's checks as well as their own.
When the working spouse starts Social Security doesn't affect the non-working spouse's maximum benefit, but if nonworking spouses claim benefits before their FRA, they'll get smaller checks. A person with an FRA of 66 who claims benefits on their spouse's record will only get 35% of the worker's full FRA benefit per month if they begin at 62 -- $350 per month instead of $500 per month in the example above. For those whose FRA is 67, they'll only get 32.5% of the worker's unreduced benefit at 62.
Workers are normally eligible for delayed retirement credits if they delay claiming past their FRA. This increases the size of their checks until they hit the maximum benefit at 70. But spousal benefits may never exceed 50% of workers' scheduled benefits at their FRA, so spouses are not eligible for delayed retirement credits.
The only way nonworking spouses can claim full benefits under their FRA is if they are caring for the worker's child who is under 16 or was disabled before 22. But workers must claim Social Security benefits for themselves before their spouse can claim benefits on their behalf.
2. Divorced spouses' benefits
Former spouses are eligible for the same benefits as current spouses if they were married to the worker for at least 10 years and have been divorced for at least two years. Unlike current spouses, former spouses do not have to wait for their ex to begin claiming benefits before they can apply for Social Security. But they must be at least 62, unless they are caring for the worker's qualifying child.
Any benefits a former spouse gets do not affect the amount that the worker or their current spouse receives from Social Security. If a former spouse remarries, they're typically no longer eligible for divorced spousal benefits unless their later marriage ends.
3. Children's benefits
Children of workers on Social Security may be eligible for their own benefit. In order to qualify, the worker must already be claiming Social Security and the child must be under 18, up to 19 if still enrolled in high school, or any age if disabled before 22. Qualifying children may be eligible for up to half of their parent's Social Security benefits at their FRA.
In some circumstances, the Social Security Administration may also pay children's benefits to stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, and adopted children.
4. Survivors benefits
Survivors benefits are similar to family benefits, but they're only available when the worker dies. Spouses, former spouses, qualifying children, and even dependent parents are eligible for survivors benefits, but how much they get depends on their relationship and the age they begin benefits.
Surviving spouses are eligible for the worker's full retirement benefit at FRA once they reach their own FRA or as early as 50 if they become disabled. They may also be eligible for partial benefits as early as 60 or at any age if caring for the worker's qualifying child. Former spouses are eligible for the same benefits as surviving spouses as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years.
Surviving and former spouses who remarry before age 60 (or 50, if disabled) are not eligible for survivors benefits unless that marriage later ends. Marriages after 60 (or 50, if disabled) have no effect on eligibility for survivors benefits.
Qualifying children -- those under 18, up to 19 if still enrolled in high school, or any age if disabled before 22 -- are eligible for up to 75% of the deceased worker's benefit amount at FRA. Dependent parents age 62 or older for whom the deceased worker provided at least 50% of their financial support are eligible for survivors benefits as well. One parent is eligible for up to 82.5% of the worker's full benefit. If both parents were receiving support, each is entitled to 75% of the worker's benefit.
How to apply for family and survivors benefits
If you think you may qualify for Social Security benefits based on a loved one's work record, contact the Social Security Administration. You will need documents to prove your relationship to the worker. This means a marriage certificate for spouses, a divorce certificate for former spouses, or a birth certificate for dependent parents and qualifying children. If you're trying to claim survivors benefits, you'll also need a copy of the deceased's death certificate.
The Social Security Administration always gives you the largest benefit you're eligible for, so there's no need to figure out what to claim. Just go online or visit your local Social Security office to apply.