Single adults have it pretty easy when it comes to Social Security. Their benefit is based on their average monthly earnings over their 35 highest-earning years, adjusted for inflation and the age they begin taking benefits -- no exceptions. But for married couples, divorced couples, and widow(er)s, it's a little more complicated.
You could be eligible for benefits based on your own work record just like single adults or you could claim benefits based on your current spouse's, ex-spouse's, or deceased spouse's work record if you meet certain criteria.
Social Security benefits for married couples
Married couples receive the higher of their own Social Security benefit or half of their spouse's benefit at his or her full retirement age (FRA), which is 66 or 67 depending on the person's birth year.
You must work at least 10 years in order to qualify for Social Security benefits based on your own work record, but you can claim spousal benefits without ever working a day in your life as long as your spouse is eligible for Social Security. However, you cannot claim spousal benefits until he or she files for Social Security.
A common strategy married couples use to maximize their benefits is for the lower-earning spouse to begin claiming benefits on their own work record early to generate some extra income, allowing the higher-earning spouse to delay benefits until their FRA or age 70 when they're entitled to the maximum Social Security benefit -- 124% of your scheduled benefit per check if your FRA is 67 or 132% if your FRA is 66. Then, their larger checks will help cover a bigger portion of the couple's living expenses. The Social Security Administration will automatically switch the lower-earning spouse over to a spousal benefit at this point if it offers him or her more money than their own Social Security benefit.
This strategy works well if one spouse earns significantly more than the other, but if both earn about the same, they might get more by both delaying their benefits as long as possible. When both people earn about the same amount, it's unlikely that a spousal benefit will grant them more money than their own benefit, so each person should aim to increase their own benefit by delaying Social Security for a few months or years.
Social Security benefits for divorced couples
The rules surrounding Social Security benefits for divorced couples are similar to the rules for married couples with a couple of exceptions. First, you must have been married to your ex for at least 10 years in order to claim benefits on his or her work record. You also cannot remarry if you intend to claim spousal benefits on your ex's work record. If you do, you may claim spousal benefits on your new spouse's work record, but not on your ex's.
Divorced individuals also do not have to wait for their ex to begin claiming Social Security in order to file for spousal benefits. As long as you are 62 or older and have been divorced for at least two years, you may file for Social Security benefits on your ex's work record even if he or she is not yet claiming benefits.
Your ex remarrying will not impact your eligibility for spousal benefits, and any benefits you're receiving on your ex's work record will not impact the benefits your ex's new spouse may receive either.
Social Security benefits for widows and widowers
Widows and widowers are eligible for Social Security survivors benefits if their deceased spouse qualified for Social Security. The deceased may still be eligible for benefits even if they didn't work for 10 years, depending on their age at death. You may begin survivors benefits as early as 60, or 50 if you are disabled. Widows and widowers caring for the deceased worker's disabled child or child under 16 may begin benefits at any time. Remarrying before 60, or 50 if you're disabled, will render you ineligible for survivors benefits.
You must wait until your FRA if you want to receive 100% of your deceased spouse's Social Security benefit. Starting early will get you 71% to 99% of the deceased worker's benefit per check. If you begin before 60 (or 50 if you're disabled) because you're caring for a qualifying child, you will only get 75% of the deceased worker's benefit per check. Each qualifying child is also eligible for 75% of the deceased worker's benefit per check.
The same rules apply for divorced spouses interested in claiming survivors benefits on their deceased ex's work record. In order to qualify for these benefits, you must have been married to the deceased worker for at least 10 years, unless you are caring for a qualifying child, in which case there is no marriage length requirement.
The Social Security Administration always gives you the biggest benefit
Understanding spousal and survivors benefits can help you decide when to begin Social Security and figure out how much you might get, but you don't have to worry about calculating whether your own Social Security benefit will give you more or less than survivors or spousal benefits because the SSA does that for you.
When you apply for benefits, it'll calculate all of your options and will automatically give you the largest benefit you're entitled to. If you have any questions about your benefits or you're ready to apply, create a my Social Security account online or contact the SSA office nearest you.