Does Marital Status Affect Social Security Benefits?

February 11, 2020

Many Americans look forward to their Social Security benefits as the main source of their retirement income. However, they may not realize that their marital status affects the amount they receive each month. We will outline four different types of marital status—single, married, divorced, and widowed—and look at how each can impact Social Security benefits.

Social Security Benefits For Singles

This is the most straight forward of all of the marital statuses. In order to be eligible for a Social Security benefit, an individual will need to be qualified. In most cases, one is qualified by having paid into the Social Security system through employment for 40 quarters, or 10 years. Then, at the age of 62, a person will become eligible for benefits. The benefit amount will be based on their individual earnings record. For every year that a person delays taking benefits, the amount will increase until the individual reaches age 70. At that time, the amount no longer increases.

Social Security Spousal Benefits as a Married Couple

With marriage, there are additional provisions for which couples are likely entitled to. Each married person is entitled to the higher of their own Social Security benefit or one half of their spouse’s benefit. This is known as the “Spousal Benefit.” It is most commonly used for low-income earners or those that did not qualify for Social Security benefits from their own work record. Even if a spouse never worked, they will likely be eligible so long as their spouse qualifies for benefits. Also, a spouse cannot claim Spousal Benefits until the other spouse begins claiming their Social Security benefits.

Amounts received in Spousal Benefits will not impact the benefit that the other spouse receives. However, the age they decide to file for benefits will affect the monthly payment amount.

Social Security Spousal Benefits as a Widow or Widower

If you are a widow or widower, you are entitled to 100% of your deceased spouse’s Social Security benefit as long as you are at or beyond full retirement age. You will receive the higher of the two benefits: the benefit based on your own work record or the benefit you would receive as a surviving spouse. 

If a surviving spouse is at least 60 but under full retirement age, they can begin claiming survivors benefits, but will only get from 71% to 99% of the total benefit amount that the deceased beneficiary was receiving. 

Getting remarried could end the survivors benefits. If the person currently receiving survivors benefits is aged 60 or older when they remarry, they will continue to receive survivors benefits based on their deceased spouse’s work record. However, if a person receiving survivors benefits decides to remarry prior to age 60, they may no longer be able to receive benefits.

Social Security Benefits as a Divorced Couple

The rules for divorced couples are similar to the rules for married couples. However, there are a few exceptions. In order to qualify for Spousal Benefits from a former spouse, the couple must have been married for at least 10 years. 

In addition, the person claiming on the earnings record of their former spouse must not remarry. A remarried person is not entitled to Spousal Benefits from their former marriage unless their new marriage also ends through death or divorce.

Unlike married couples, divorced individuals do not have to wait for their former spouse to begin taking Social Security benefits before they can sign up for benefits. As long as the individual is 62 or older and has been divorced for at least two years, they can begin claiming benefits on their ex-spouse’s work record. 

Finally, the amount someone receives from benefits through their former spouse does not impact the amount the former spouse receives. 

The Bottom Line

Marital status impacts the benefits that one receives from Social Security. The rules that guide Spousal Benefits and survivors benefits for married couples are different from those for single beneficiaries. Often times, single beneficiaries will receive the higher of the benefits they qualify for either from their own work record or the rules listed above. 

The Social Security Administration will usually automatically select the highest benefit available for those applying for benefits But, understanding these rules can help a person to make sure that they are receiving everything to which they are entitled.

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