Social Security spousal benefits are a way for you to get benefits based on your spouse's earnings if he or she has higher lifetime earnings than you do. While the basic concept is straightforward, this benefit has some quirks when it comes to who qualifies, how much they'll receive, and more.

If there's a chance you or your spouse might claim Social Security spousal benefits someday, you'll want to keep reading.

1. If you're divorced, you can still get spousal benefits

Divorcing someone doesn't necessarily disqualify you from claiming Social Security spousal benefits in their name. If you are still unmarried and your marriage to your ex lasted at least 10 years, then you can claim benefits based on your ex-spouse's work history. And like any spousal benefit recipient, you must be aged 62 or older, and your ex must be entitled to either retirement or disability benefits from Social Security. If your former spouse is old enough to receive Social Security benefits but hasn't applied yet, you can still get spousal benefits as long as you've been divorced for at least two years.

Senior man and woman sitting on couch holding hands and smiling

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Claiming spousal benefits early reduces your benefit amount...

You may already know that claiming your own Social Security benefits before "full retirement age" results in a permanent reduction in your benefit amount. The same goes for spousal benefits. Claiming your spousal benefits at the earliest possible age of 62 can reduce your benefit amount to as little as 32.5% of your spouse's full benefit. On the other hand, if you wait until full retirement age to claim the spousal benefit, you'll get up to 50% of your spouse's full benefit.

3. ...but waiting past full retirement age won't get you anything

When you're claiming retirement benefits based on your own record, you can put off receiving your benefits in exchange for "delayed retirement credits." For every month you delay, up until age 70, your benefit will get a permanent boost. But spousal benefits don't get delayed retirement credits, no matter how long you wait. You also can't take advantage of your spouse's delayed retirement credits; spousal benefits are always based on your spouse's base benefit amount.

In short, there's no reason whatsoever to wait beyond your full retirement age to claim spousal benefits.

4. You can get spousal benefits even if you've never worked

In order to qualify for Social Security benefits based on your own record, you must accumulate at least 40 Social Security "credits." You get credits by working and earning income, and you can earn up to four credits per year. For 2017, it takes $1,300 in earnings to accrue a single credit, so if your earnings for the year are at least $5,200 ($1,300 times four), you'll get all four possible credits for the year.

Spousal benefits, however, don't require you to have any credits at all. All you need is a spouse who has accrued at least 40 credits, and you can qualify for spousal benefits.

5. You may get spousal benefits automatically

If your spouse is already getting Social Security checks, you don't need to put in a separate application for spousal benefits. When you apply for Social Security, the agency will automatically check to see if your spousal benefits would be greater than your own benefits. If so, it will sign you up for spousal benefits. However, if your spouse has not yet applied for their own benefits, you'll need to apply for spousal benefits specifically to get them.

How to apply for spousal benefits

Applying for Social Security spousal benefits is roughly the same process as applying for your own Social Security benefits (and in some cases it's identical; see the previous section). You can apply online, by phone, or in person; the Social Security website has more information about each of these options. But before you apply, make sure that now is the right time to do so. You don't want to accidentally end up with a reduced spousal benefit because you didn't realize that your full retirement age was later than you realized.