Social Security primarily offers retirement benefits to workers. However, the spousal benefits that it offers also play a key role in how much you can get from the program, and getting married can therefore dramatically change your Social Security benefits. Below, we'll look at several ways in which getting married can affect what you get from Social Security.

The basics of spousal benefits

If you've never been married before, the impact of marriage on Social Security is fairly simple. In order to claim spousal benefits based on your new spouse's work record, you have to be at least 62, and you have to have been married for at least one year before your application with the Social Security Administration gets processed. If the two spouses are both parents of a minor child, then the one-year requirement is waived, and you can file a spousal benefits claim immediately.

The spousal benefit is typically one-half of the spouse's retirement benefit, adjusted for the age at which the spouse applies. In general, when you file for spousal benefits, you'll be treated as also having simultaneously claimed your own retirement benefits. You'll receive whichever amount is larger, although technically, you always receive your retirement benefit, and the spousal benefit represents any excess above your retirement benefit. For instance, if your retirement benefit is $400 and your spouse's is $1,000, then you'll get a total of $500 if you apply for spousal benefits at full retirement age. That consists of your $400 retirement benefit plus $100 in spousal benefits to get you up to the higher $500 amount.

Spousal benefits and previous marriages

If you've been married before, then getting remarried is slightly more complicated from a Social Security perspective. Those who spent 10 years or more in a previous marriage are allowed to claim spousal benefits based on their ex-spouse's work history. If your ex-spouse has claimed retirement benefits, then you can qualify for your spousal benefits right away when you turn 62. If not, then you have to have been divorced for at least two years before claiming your spousal benefits.

There's one big potential pitfall with ex-spousal benefits: They go away if you get remarried. Instead, you'll have to claim spousal benefits based on your new spouse's work history. If that presents a problem, then it's smart to know about it before it's too late. Keep in mind, though, that it doesn't matter if your ex-spouse gets remarried. You're still entitled to your spousal benefits regardless.

Survivor benefits and getting married

Once you get married, you're also entitled to receive survivor benefits on your spouse's work history after your spouse's death. Typically, you have to have been married for at least nine months prior to the date of death in order for survivor benefits to be available. The idea is that Social Security wants to discourage people from getting married immediately before death simply to pass on benefits. However, there are some exceptions to the nine-month rule that prevent the denial of benefits in unforeseen circumstances, including accidental death or death in the line of duty as a military service member. Divorced spouses are also entitled to survivor benefits, again with the 10-year marriage-length requirement in place.

With survivor benefits, the rules governing remarriage are somewhat more complicated. If you get remarried before you turn 60, then you'll no longer be eligible to collect survivor benefits based on the deceased spouse's work history. If you wait until 60 or older before you remarry, however, then you won't lose your eligibility for survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse's work history. You won't be able to get a double-benefit based on both your ex and your current spouse, but you will be able to get whichever benefit amount gives you the biggest payment.

Getting married has huge financial implications, and Social Security benefits represent just one of the many ways in which married life requires careful financial planning. By knowing how marriage will change your Social Security benefits, you can be prepared to deal with any adverse impact rather than letting it catch you unaware.