One of the benefits of being married is that you can share your spouse’s Social Security benefits. If you are close to retirement age, you should be aware that there are various benefits available to spouses, including divorced or surviving spouses.
Chances are you are already aware that spousal benefits are available and you’re looking for answers to questions, such as:
- My wife doesn’t have enough credits to qualify for Social Security; can she collect benefits based on my record?
- My husband and I have been married for 35 years but are divorcing soon; what will happen to my spousal benefits when the divorce is final?
- What happens to my widow’s benefits if I remarry?
- I am collecting benefits on my ex-husband’s record, what happens if he dies?
- How can we maximize our family benefits? Are there strategies that we should be aware of?
Why is Planning for Spousal Benefits Important?
With Social Security making up approximately 40% of the average American’s retirement income, it’s important to maximize your lifetime benefits not only for yourself, but for your spouse also.
The rules surrounding spousal benefits are very complicated. Making a wrong decision could mean a lower standard of living and could increase the chance that you will outlive your money.
Retirement Benefits for Spouses
Disclaimer: For simplicity, this article assumes that the husband is the higher earner and that the wife will receive spousal or survival benefits based on her husband’s earnings. However, the spousal rules are gender neutral; if the wife is the higher earner, or if it makes sense for other reasons, the husband can certainly claim spousal benefits on his wife’s earnings instead.
Wives can collect retirement benefits based on their husband’s earnings history even if they have never worked. However, there are many rules and requirements that must be met, including:
- You must be married for at least one year before you can collect benefits based on your spouse’s earnings history
- You must be at least age 62
- Your husband must have filed benefits on his own record (that does not necessarily mean he is collecting benefits)
If there are minor children involved the rules are a little different. Wives who are caring for a dependent child who is receiving Social Security can receive the spousal benefits no matter what age she is. However the spousal benefits will end when the child turns 18 if the spouse is under age 62.
Who is a Spouse?
This may seem like a silly question, but in today’s world where you have multiple marriages in a lifetime, common-law marriages and same-sex marriages, it’s a legitimate question.
“Spouse” typically means the current spouse, but divorced and widowed spouses can also receive benefits based on the worker’s earning history. More about divorced and survivor benefits will follow.
Add in common law marriages and same-sex marriages and the definition of spouse gets really confusing.
Common law marriages are recognized by Social Security if they are legally entered into in a state that recognizes common law marriages and you act as if you are married. So in some cases you can be a spouse for Social Security purposes even if you are not legally married.
On the other hand, same-sex marriages are not recognized by Social Security, so a partner in a same-sex marriage will not be considered a spouse, even if you live in a state that allows same-sex marriages.
Divorced Spouse Benefits
Many people are surprised to learn that you can collect spousal benefits on an ex-spouse’s earnings record. Divorced spouses can collect spousal benefits if the marriage lasted at least 10 years and if it has been at least 2 years since you have been divorced. Similar to spousal benefits, you will receive the higher of your own benefit of 50 percent of your ex-spouse’s benefit.
The age requirement (must be age 62 to collect divorced spouse benefits) and reduction for early withdrawal of benefits applies just like it does for spousal benefits. However, one of the main differences between divorced benefits and spousal benefits for the current spouse is that the divorced spouse doesn’t have to wait for her ex-husband to start collecting benefits before she can start collecting divorced spouse benefits.
If you are the ex-husband you may be wondering how your ex-wife collecting on your benefits affects your current wife and family. The answer is “it doesn’t”. The payment of benefits to an ex-spouse has no effect on the maximum family benefits for your current wife and family.
If you have been married more than once, and each marriage lasted more than 10 years, you may qualify for benefits on either ex-spouse’s record. As long as you are not married at the time you apply (and you have been divorced for 2 years), you can apply for spousal benefits on any ex-spouse that you were married to for at least 10 years.
Tip: If you are considering divorce and you have been married for close to 10 years, consider delaying the divorce until after you have reached the 10 year mark to allow the lower earning spouse to qualify for spousal benefits. Benefits paid to an ex-spouse don’t affect your family maximum benefits, so it helps the wife and does no harm to the husband or his new family should he remarry.
Finally, whether you are the current or ex-wife, if your husband passes away before you do, you may qualify for survivor benefits. In general, survivor benefits are 100% of your husband’s benefit; however, survivor benefits will vary depending on the number of years worked, the earnings and if the deceased worker was already retired (and at what age).
Survivor benefits can be taken as early as age 60, or even age 50 if you are disabled. A widow can choose to take survivor benefits at age 60 and then switch to her own benefits at full retirement age.
Widows will lose their survivor benefits if they remarry before age 60, however, once you have reached age 60 you can continue to collect survivor benefits even if you remarry.