Social Security can be a complex topic, but it's an important subject to understand if you want to make the most of your benefits in retirement.

Approximately 1 in 5 married beneficiaries and close to half of unmarried ones rely on their monthly checks for around 90% of their income in retirement, according to the Social Security Administration. Meanwhile, more than 90% of adults age 50 or older say they don't know what factors affect the maximum amount they can receive in benefits, a 2017 survey from Nationwide found.

In other words, many retirees are depending on their benefits for a substantial source of income, yet they don't fully understand how to maximize those monthly checks. While there are many Social Security claiming strategies out there, some are more well-known than others. And there's one in particular that isn't discussed often but can be a smart move for many retirees.

Older couple standing in front of a brick building

Image source: Getty Images.

Why you should be thinking about survivors benefits now

If a loved one passes away and you were depending on him or her for income, there's a chance you're eligible to start collecting Social Security survivors benefits. Widows and widowers age 60 or older are typically entitled to survivors benefits, as are ex-spouses, children, parents, and other relatives in some circumstances.

While it's a bleak thought, it's a good idea to start planning now for how survivors benefits will affect your retirement -- particularly if you're married. If your spouse passes away, you may be entitled to collect his or her entire benefit amount for the rest of your life. This means it's important to strategize about when you and your spouse should begin claiming benefits.

The age at which you file for benefits will affect your monthly benefit amount for the rest of your life. If you claim before your full retirement age (FRA) -- which is either age 66, 66 and a certain number of months, or 67, depending on the year you were born -- each check will be reduced by up to 30% (to stretch the total benefit amount so that it lasts longer). However, if you wait until after your FRA to claim, you'll receive extra money each month in addition to your full monthly benefit amount, to make up for the months during which you weren't receiving benefits. For example, if you have an FRA of 67 and delay claiming benefits until age 70, you'll receive an extra 24% every month.

If your spouse passes away before you, you may be eligible to collect his or her entire benefit amount in survivors benefits. That means if he or she delayed claiming benefits until age 70, you could stand to receive more money each month too. Keep in mind, however, that you can't "double-dip" -- or receive your retirement benefit plus your spouse's benefit amount. Rather, you'll only receive the higher of the two amounts.

How this could affect your claiming strategy

All of this information can be confusing, but the bottom line is that it's important to think about how spousal and survivors benefits could affect your retirement. Before you and your spouse start claiming benefits, decide whether one of you should consider delaying benefits to provide additional financial protection for the surviving spouse later in life.

For example, if your spouse is significantly older than you and is also entitled to a much bigger benefit amount, it may make sense for him or her to delay benefits. There's a good chance he or she may pass away before you do, and if your spouse delays benefits to earn those bigger checks, that means you'll receive more in survivors benefits than if your spouse had claimed earlier.

Similarly, if you're the higher-earning spouse and want to ensure your husband or wife will be receiving as much as possible in the event that you pass away first, delaying benefits may be a smart move. Because your spouse would continue receiving Social Security checks for the rest of his or her life, this strategy essentially provides a form of life insurance. Especially if your spouse ends up living many years or even decades longer than you, having that extra cash each month can be a lifeline in retirement.

Nobody necessarily wants to think about their or their spouse's potential death. However, although it's not an enjoyable conversation, coming up with a strategy regarding survivors benefits can ensure you or your spouse will be able to enjoy a more comfortable retirement.