If you've worked at least 10 full years, you'll likely be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits when you turn 62. Single adults can only claim benefits based on their own work record, but for people who are married, widowed or divorced, things get a little more messy.
If you fall into one of these latter categories, you still have the option to claim benefits based on your own work history, but you may also be entitled to benefits based on your spouse's (or ex-spouse's) work record. The options for each of these groups are explained in detail below.
How does Social Security work for married couples?
Married couples are entitled to the higher of their own Social Security benefit or half of their spouse's benefit if they wait until full retirement age (FRA) to file.
You don't need to qualify for Social Security on your own to take spousal benefits. Even if you've never worked a day in your life, you'll still be eligible so long as your spouse has worked at least 10 years. However, you cannot claim spousal benefits until your spouse also begins claiming their Social Security benefits.
The amount that you receive in spousal benefits will not impact the amount that your spouse receives, but the age at which you file for benefits will affect your monthly payments. A common strategy for married couples is for the lower earner to begin taking their own Social Security benefit early. This enables the higher earner to delay Social Security benefits until their full retirement age or beyond.
Here's why. While you can start taking Social Security at age 62, you won't receive 100% of your scheduled benefit amount unless you wait until you reach your full retirement age, which is somewhere between 66 and 67 depending on the year you were born. You can continue delaying benefits beyond your full retirement age to increase the value of your checks even further. Your benefit maxes out at age 70, when you will receive 124% or 132% of your base benefit amount per check if your full retirement age is 67 or 66, respectively.
If the lower earner begins taking Social Security early, their smaller benefit will provide some additional income while the higher earner delays their benefits. The higher earner's benefit amount will grow more over time than the lower earner's benefit would, because Social Security benefits increase by a percentage of the base amount. When the higher-earning spouse finally elects to claim Social Security, the lower-earning spouse will automatically be switched over to a spousal benefit if the spousal benefit is more than they're entitled to based on their own work record. However, it's worth noting that the spousal benefit amount will always remain the same, even if the higher earner chooses to delay their benefits.
What about divorced people?
The rules for divorced couples are similar to the rules for married couples with a few key exceptions.
First, in order to qualify for spousal benefits from a former spouse, you and your ex must have been married for at least 10 years. Second, you must not be remarried, though it's OK if your ex weds again. If you've remarried, you're not entitled to spousal benefits unless your current marriage ends.
If you do qualify for benefits through your former spouse, the amount you receive will not impact the amount that your ex-spouse or their new spouse can receive. Unlike married couples, divorced individuals do not have to wait for their ex-spouse to begin taking Social Security benefits before they can sign up for benefits. As long as you're 62 or older and have been divorced for at least two years, you can begin claiming benefits on your ex-spouse's work record, regardless of whether they have claimed their own benefits.
Survivors benefits for widows and widowers
Widows and widowers are entitled to 100% of their deceased spouse's Social Security benefit if they are at or beyond full retirement age. If you're at least 60 but under full retirement age, you can begin claiming survivors benefits, but you'll only get 71% to 99% of the total benefit amount per check. You can begin claiming survivors benefits at age 50 if you're disabled, or at any age if you're caring for your deceased spouse's child who is under 16 or disabled.
It's worth noting that you still may qualify for survivors benefits even if your spouse did not work for 10 or more years. It all depends on the age at which they died. The younger they were, the fewer years in the workforce are required. If you're unsure whether your deceased spouse qualified, contact the Social Security Administration.
Getting remarried may end your survivors benefits, but it depends on when it happens. If you're age 60 or older when you remarry (or 50 or older if you're disabled), you'll still be able to receive survivors benefits based on your deceased spouse's work record. But if you remarry prior to this, you no longer will be able to receive survivors benefits.
Divorcees also may be entitled to survivors benefits if their ex-spouse dies. In order to qualify, they must have been married to the deceased for at least 10 years and not have remarried.
Social Security gives you the higher benefit amount automatically
You don't need to understand every obscure rule on spousal benefits to take advantage of them. When you apply for Social Security benefits yourself, the Social Security Administration will automatically give you the higher of your own benefit or any spousal or survivors benefits that you qualify for. But it's worth knowing the eligibility requirements, because it may enable you to maximize the Social Security benefits you receive.