Must-Know Social Security Spousal Benefits Rules

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Kamil Macniak /

If you get divorced or your spouse dies, it will affect the way your Social Security benefits are calculated. Previously, your spouse could draw upon half of your Social Security benefit while yours was suspended. But now, you can no longer suspend benefits and then reinstate them to receive retroactive benefits and your spouse can no longer claim a spousal benefit, thanks to the latest changes to the rules for Social Security spousal benefits.

Here’s what you need to know about Social Security benefits if you are or were married.

Understanding Spousal Social Security Benefits

You’ll want to know how  Social Security benefits are calculated when you both reach retirement age, if your spouse passes away or if you get divorced. You should understand all Social Security spousal benefits rules so you know how they might affect your Social Security checks.

The first thing you need to do to calculate your spouse’s and your Social Security benefits is to call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to learn about your retirement options. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which became public law in November 2015, made several changes that limit your ability to claim on a delayed benefit or claim benefits while your spouse has suspended his benefits. This limitation prevents couples from claiming a double benefit when both have reached retirement age — a loophole that is now closed.

Learn: How to Prepare for 2017 Social Security Changes

Spousal Benefits After a Divorce

If you end up getting a divorce but your marriage lasted at least 10 years, you’re eligible to receive your ex-spouse’s Social Security benefits when he reaches retirement age. You would qualify for this benefit only under the following conditions:

  • You are unmarried.
  • You are at least 62 years old.
  • Your ex is eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits or disability benefits.
  • Your calculated benefit based on your own work history would be less than your ex-spouse’s calculated benefit.
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Social Security Spousal Benefits When Your Spouse Dies

If your spouse passes away, his death affects your Social Security spousal benefits. The general guidelines are as follows:

  • 100 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit amount for widows or widowers at full retirement age or older
  • 71.5  to 99 percent of the deceased worker’s basic amount for widows and widowers 60 years of age to full retirement age
  • 71.5 percent for disabled widows or widowers 50 to 59 years of age
  • 75 percent for widows and widowers of any age who are caring for a child under 16 years of age
  • 75 percent for children under 18 years of age, disabled children and children under 19 years of age if they’re still in elementary or secondary school

As long as your spouse worked long enough to qualify for benefits, you would earn a survivor benefit based on the number of credits your spouse earned during his working years. Benefits can be paid out to children and to the surviving spouse caring for children, even if the spouse who died didn’t meet the required number of credits during his working years.

If you’re a widow or widower of someone who receives Social Security benefits, you would receive full benefits when you reach full retirement age or reduced benefits starting at age 60. If you’re disabled and the disability started within or before seven years of the death of your working spouse, you could receive Social Security benefits as early as age 50.

Are You Retirement Ready?

If you’re divorced and your ex-spouse dies, you would receive the same benefits as a widow or widower as long as your marriage lasted at least 10 years. You would still be considered a surviving spouse.

If you’re caring for a disabled child or a child under 16 years of age who’s receiving Social Security benefits on the record of your former spouse, and who is the natural or legally adopted child of your former spouse, you would also receive the same benefits as a widow or widower, regardless of the length of your marriage.

Calculating survivor benefits can be tricky because the benefit is calculated based on number of years your spouse worked. Other stipulations and special circumstances might also apply. You can contact the Social Security office directly to determine your eligibility and total spousal benefit.

Up Next: What You Can Buy With the Average Social Security Check


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