For many retirees, Social Security benefits are a significant source of income. Approximately half of married couples rely on their monthly checks for at least 50% of their income in retirement, according to the Social Security Administration, and one in five couples depend on that money for at least 90% of their income.
If you're expecting your benefits to help you make ends meet in retirement, it's important to ensure you're maximizing those checks. There are some common ways to increase your monthly benefit amount, including waiting until past your full retirement age to start claiming or increasing your income (since your benefit amount is based on your 35 highest-earning working years). However, there's one other little-known way you might be able to increase your benefits.
Understand what types of benefits you're entitled to collect
When most people think of Social Security benefits, they probably picture the standard retirement benefit the majority of retirees are entitled to receive. But you may also be eligible for other benefits, including spousal benefits, divorce benefits, and survivors benefits. The eligibility requirements for these benefits can be complex, but if you're entitled to receive them, you could boost your income by hundreds of dollars per month.
The SSA won't typically let you know which types of benefits you're eligible for, so it's up to you to do your research and apply for the benefits you're entitled to receive. Otherwise, you could be unknowingly missing out on extra cash.
1. Spousal benefits
Regardless of your own work history, if your spouse is eligible to receive Social Security benefits, you may also be entitled to money based on his or her work record. The amount you receive depends on a few factors, including whether you're entitled to benefits based on your own work history, your spouse's benefit amount, and the age your spouse begins claiming benefits.
If you're entitled to benefits based on your own work history, the SSA will pay out that money first. But then if you're eligible to receive more each month based on your spouse's work record, you'll receive an additional amount on top of your benefits.
Even if you don't qualify for benefits based on your own work record, you can still receive 50% of your spouse's full benefit amount once you reach your full retirement age (FRA). However, if your spouse claims their benefits before they reach their FRA, that will not only reduce the amount they receive each month, but it will also result in smaller checks for you, too. So it's important to have a strategy regarding when you and your spouse should claim benefits because it can significantly impact how much you both receive each month.
2. Divorce benefits
Spousal benefits typically only apply when you're currently married, but divorcees may also be eligible to collect benefits on their ex-spouse's work record.
There are a few eligibility requirements, though, before you can receive divorce benefits. First, the marriage has to have lasted at least 10 years. Second, you must be 62 years old before you can begin claiming, and your spouse must be eligible to receive benefits. If your spouse is eligible to collect benefits but hasn't started claiming yet, you can begin claiming as long as you're at least 62 years old and you've been divorced for at least two years. Finally, you cannot currently be married -- but if your spouse has remarried, that doesn't affect your ability to claim benefits based on his or her work record.
Similar to spousal benefits, you can claim divorce benefits regardless of whether you're qualified for your own benefits based on your work history. If you are eligible for your own benefits, those will be paid out first. Then if you're qualified to receive more, the SSA will boost your monthly benefit amount. Even if you're not eligible for your own benefits, you may still be able to receive 50% of your ex-spouse's full benefit amount if you claim at your FRA. Also, keep in mind that any money you receive in divorce benefits doesn't affect how much your ex-spouse (or his or her current spouse) receives.
3. Survivors benefits
If your spouse passes away, you may be eligible to receive survivors benefits based on his or her work record. Eligibility requirements can be tricky, though, which makes these types of benefits seem more confusing than they really are.
First, your spouse needs to have been eligible to receive benefits in the first place. This depends on how many years they worked and the age at which they passed away. The younger they were when they passed, the fewer years they need to have worked to be eligible for benefits. But regardless of their age, they're automatically qualified as long as they worked and paid Social Security taxes for at least 10 years.
In the event that your spouse dies, you're eligible to claim survivors benefits as long as you're age 60 or older. But if you're disabled, you can claim survivors benefits beginning at 50 years old. Also, if you're the parent of a child who is either disabled or is age 16 or younger, you may be able to receive survivors benefits no matter your age if your spouse dies.
In addition, spouses aren't the only ones who might be eligible to collect survivors benefits. For example, if you're over the age of 62 and you rely on an adult child for at least half of your income, you may qualify for survivors benefits if your child passes away. There are also some circumstances in which you can receive survivors benefits from other relatives as well, although these situations are relatively rare. Still, though, it's a good idea to research all your options to see if you could be collecting more from Social Security.
Social Security benefits can make or break your retirement, particularly if your personal savings aren't as robust as you'd like them to be. The good news, though, is that you might be eligible to receive more than you think in benefits. By doing your research and determining which types of benefits you qualify for, you can boost your monthly checks and enjoy a more comfortable retirement.