Social Security benefits can be a substantial source of income in retirement, and if you're married or divorced, you could be entitled to more than you might think.
Before you retire or start claiming benefits, it's wise to consider how your marital status could affect your strategy. If you're married or divorced, there are a few moves to make now to maximize your monthly payments.
1. See if you're entitled to spousal or divorce benefits
If you're currently married or divorced from someone who is entitled to Social Security benefits, you could qualify for spousal or divorce benefits based on his or her work record. To receive spousal benefits, you must be married to someone who will receive Social Security. For divorce benefits, your marriage must have lasted for at least 10 years, and you cannot currently be married.
For both types of benefits, the maximum you can receive is 50% of the amount your spouse or ex-spouse is entitled to at his or her full retirement age (FRA). If you're entitled to benefits based on your own work record, you'll only receive the higher of the two amounts.
So, for instance, say you're entitled to $600 per month based on your own work record, and your spouse will receive $2,000 per month at his or her FRA. In this case, you'd be entitled to $1,000 per month in spousal benefits, so you'll collect $1,000 per month -- not $1,600 per month.
2. Determine a claiming strategy
The age you begin claiming can have a significant impact on the amount you receive each month, and if you're married or divorced, it pays to come up with a strategy to maximize your retirement income.
The earliest you can begin claiming is age 62, but if you delay benefits past that age (up to age 70), you'll receive higher monthly payments. If you're married and both you and your spouse are entitled to benefits, consider whether you both want to claim at the same time or at different ages.
In some cases, it may be wise for the lower-earning spouse to claim earlier while the higher-earning spouse delays benefits. This way, you'll have some extra income earlier in retirement, but you'll start earning a much bigger boost down the road. In other scenarios, it may be best for both of you to delay benefits to earn as much as possible from Social Security. Or you may both choose to claim early to get a jump-start on retirement.
If you're divorced, the age your ex-spouse chooses to claim will not affect your benefit amount. But if you're collecting divorce benefits, you'll earn more each month by waiting until your FRA to file. If money is going to be tight in retirement, delaying benefits could be a smart move.
3. Consider how your life expectancies might affect your strategy
Although it's not the most pleasant topic to think about, your lifespan can affect your Social Security strategy -- particularly if you're married.
When one spouse passes away, the other is generally eligible to collect the deceased spouse's entire benefit amount in survivors benefits. If you expect your spouse to outlive you, it may be smart for you to delay benefits so that your spouse will receive a higher benefit amount later in life if you pass away first.
While survivors benefits are generally reserved for widows and widowers, other family members -- including ex-spouses -- are sometimes eligible as well. Although you may not be able to influence your ex-spouse's claiming strategy, it can be helpful to be aware of the types of benefits you may be entitled to if you're divorced.
Social Security benefits can go a long way in retirement, so it's wise to make sure you're collecting as much as possible. By double-checking all the types of benefits you're entitled to and heading into retirement with a strategy, you can maximize your income and enjoy your senior years more comfortably.