If Social Security benefits are going to make up a significant portion of your income in retirement, it's essential to maximize them.
More than a quarter of Americans say that Social Security benefits alone should be enough to cover all their expenses in retirement, according to a survey from Nationwide. Although your benefits aren't designed to replace all of your income in retirement, they can make it easier to make ends meet. You may also be entitled to more than just your standard retirement benefit, which can help those monthly checks go further during your golden years.
What benefits are you eligible for?
As long as you've worked and paid Social Security taxes for at least 40 quarters (or 10 years), you're eligible to collect retirement benefits. Exactly how much you'll receive depends on several factors, including how many years you worked, your income during those years, and the age when you started claiming benefits.
But retirement benefits aren't the only type of Social Security benefit available, and you might be entitled to receive extra money each month if you take advantage of all the types of benefits you're eligible for. If you're married, for example, you may be eligible to collect spousal benefits. Divorcees and widow(er)s may be entitled to extra benefits in some circumstances. Even if you've never worked a day in your life and aren't eligible to collect retirement benefits, you may still be able to receive these other types of benefits based on the work record of your spouse or former spouse.
Because the Social Security Administration may not be aware of your marital status or family situation, you usually won't be notified if you're allowed to collect these types of benefits. But there are a few eligibility requirements you'll need to meet before applying.
If you're not eligible to receive retirement benefits based on your own work record, you may be able to collect benefits based on your spouse's record. But in order for you to receive spousal benefits, your spouse must be currently collecting benefits, and you must be at least 62 years old (or caring for a child younger than 16 years old). Also, if you do qualify for spousal benefits, you'll need to wait until your full retirement age (FRA) to collect your full benefit amount. If you claim before that age, your benefits will be reduced.
Working spouses may be able to collect spousal benefits too, and it's possible you'll be able to collect benefits based on your own work record plus a little extra each month if you're entitled to spousal benefits as well. The most anyone can receive in spousal benefits is 50% of the amount their spouse can collect at their FRA. But if you're eligible for both your own benefits and spousal benefits, you can't "double-dip", meaning you can't claim both benefits in full. The SSA will pay out your benefits first, then if you're eligible to receive more based on your spouse's record you'll receive a little extra each month.
Divorce benefits are similar to spousal benefits, but there are a few key differences. First, you must have been married for at least 10 years before getting divorced, and you cannot currently be married (although if your spouse has remarried, that won't affect your benefits). You also must be at least 62 years old to start collecting divorce benefits, and if you've been divorced for less than two years, your spouse must already be claiming benefits in order for you to start receiving monthly checks. If the two of you have been divorced for more than two years, you don't need to wait for your ex-spouse to begin claiming before you start receiving benefits.
Like with spousal benefits, you won't receive the full benefit amount you're entitled to unless you claim at your FRA. Also, if you are eligible for divorce benefits, you can receive up to 50% of the amount your ex-spouse is entitled to receive if they claim at their FRA. And if you're eligible for benefits based on your own work record, the SSA will pay those out before any divorce benefits you're entitled to.
Survivors benefits are a little different than spousal and divorce benefits in that they're available to more than just spouses. Workers also don't have to have worked a full 10 years in order for their families to receive survivors benefits. Exactly how long they need to work depends on the age at which they die, and younger workers don't need to work as long for their families to be entitled to survivors benefits.
If a spouse, parent, child, or anyone else you depend on for income passes away, you and your family may be eligible for survivors benefits. For example, say your spouse was the primary income provider in the family, and you, your young children, and your spouse's parents relied on their income to make ends meet. If you meet all the eligibility requirements, you, your children, and your spouse's parents may all be entitled to receive survivors benefits.
Exactly how much you'll receive depends on the amount your family member was expected to receive in benefits at their FRA, as well as how many people are receiving benefits based on this person's work record. The calculations for how much you could be entitled to can get murky, so if you think you might be eligible for survivors benefits, it's a good idea to talk to a Social Security representative. Unlike other types of benefits, you can't apply for survivors benefits online, so you'll need to call the Social Security office or make an appointment.
If you're like many retirees, Social Security benefits will make up a decent chunk of your retirement income. By making sure you receive all the different types of benefits you're entitled to, you can increase the size of your monthly checks and enjoy a more comfortable retirement.