Social Security retirement benefits are often referred to as "earned benefits." That's because you pay payroll taxes that fund Social Security and earn work credits that entitle you to this retirement income. The amount you receive is also based on average wages over your career.

But what about people who never had a job outside of the home? Can they still get Social Security benefits even if they didn't receive a paycheck? The answer may surprise you.

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Working isn't a prerequisite to getting Social Security retirement benefits

In order to claim Social Security based on your own work history, you must have earned 40 work credits. You can earn up to four credits per year. So you must earn money on the job for at least 10 years to qualify for benefits based on your work record.

But it's important to realize that you don't necessarily have to claim benefits based on your own career history. If you are married, or if you were married, it's possible to become eligible based on a spouse's earnings history. And that's great news for those who built a career at home rather than in the professional world, because it means that they can still get rewarded for their efforts with retirement benefits. 

Both spousal and survivor benefits are available based on a spouse's work history -- and you don't have to have worked a day in your life to get them. Spousal benefits can equal up to 50% of the worker's standard benefit (the amount your spouse would receive at full retirement age (FRA)). And survivor benefits could equal 100% of the benefits that your deceased spouse was receiving or would have been entitled to at full retirement age. 

This means you could get hundreds or even thousands of dollars of Social Security income to support you in your later years -- even if you didn't earn a paycheck of your own. 

Who is entitled to spousal and survivor benefits?

If you are currently married and have reached age 62, you should be entitled to claim spousal benefits. However, your spouse will need to have already claimed their own Social Security check before you can get yours. If you don't wait until your full retirement age (between 66 and 2 months and 67), your spousal benefits will be reduced.

If you are divorced but you were married for at least 10 years, you can still claim spousal benefits on your ex's record as long as you haven't remarried. In this case, as long as you have been divorced for at least two years, you can start getting your checks once you reach 62 regardless of whether your ex has started getting their own benefits or not. 

Survivor benefits are also available if your spouse dies while you are married or if you're divorced but had a marriage that lasted for at least 10 years and you didn't remarry before the age of 60. Survivor benefits are available as soon as you reach age 60 (or age 50 if disabled), although you can get benefits earlier if you are caring for unmarried or disabled children you shared with the deceased. 

It's important to understand exactly how these benefits work and to know when you're entitled to them so you can get the money you deserve from the Social Security Administration. Make sure you know the rules if you never worked or if your current or former spouse earned more than you did. In both situations, claiming on your spouse's work record could provide you with more money as a retiree.