A guide to Social Security benefits for spouses, ex-spouses, and widows

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For seniors, retirement income is typically made up of what the National Retirement Security Institute calls the ‘three-legged stool’: a combination of retirement savings from defined contribution plans like a 401(k), a pension and Social Security benefits. With almost 40% of men and women who rely on Social Security benefits for more than 50% of their retirement income, the government program plays a vital role in ensuring that many older Americans don’t end up in poverty.

Spousal and widow’s benefits were first established in 1939 as a way to provide additional income to retired households. With spousal benefits, people with little or no work history can earn money based on their partner’s work history. On 2015same-sex married couples and other couples in legal non-marital relationships also became eligible for spousal benefits.

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Spouses, ex-spouses and widows’ benefits are especially beneficial for women, who tend to spend more time away from the workplace to care for children or elderly parents. According to the National Institute of Retirement Security 60% of caregivers are actually women.

another studioconducted by the Social Science Research Network, found that women with one child earned 16% less in Social Security benefits than women without children; however, spousal benefits helped erase the discrepancy in Social Security income between them.

“The maternity penalty is almost negligible among women receiving spousal benefits, but mothers receiving benefits solely on their own earnings history see significantly lower Social Security earnings,” the study states.

Select spoke with Jim Blair, Principal Consultant at Premier Consulting in Social Securityfor more information on how the benefits for spouses, ex-spouses and widows really work.

spousal benefits

The US Social Security Administration calculates a the worker’s monthly benefits, known as the primary insurance amount, or PIA, using a formula based on their highest 35 years of earnings. To qualify for worker’s benefits, individuals must have worked for at least 10 years. In general, those who have held more stable jobs for longer periods of time tend to earn higher benefit amounts than those who have found themselves with several years of no or low income.

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Spouses are eligible for spousal benefits beginning at age 62, as long as the main worker is already receiving them and the couple has been married for 12 months or more. Spousal benefits can be worth up to 50% of the primary worker’s benefit, as long as the individual waits until full retirement age to start collecting them.

If someone starts receiving benefits before their full retirement age, the monthly spousal benefit amount will be reduced. If a spouse is still below their full retirement age, benefits can be reduced by up to 30% if their full retirement age is 66, Blair explains. If your full retirement age is 67, your benefits can be reduced by up to 35% if you start at the earliest age available, she says.

“It just depends on your full retirement age as to how much of a reduction you’ll see,” says Blair.

As of February 2022, the median spousal benefit was just $838.88. Keep in mind that Social Security benefits and spousal benefits are primarily intended to supplement a person’s retirement income, so building your own retirement savings in addition to these benefits is essential.

In addition to maximizing your employer-sponsored 401(k), you may want to consider opening a traditional or Roth IRA. With a traditional IRA, you won’t pay taxes on your investments until you receive distributions when you retire. A Roth IRA, on the other hand, is an after-tax retirement account, which allows people to pay taxes on their initial contributions so their investments can grow tax-free over time.

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The US Social Security Administration provides an online calculator, which shows how much a person would receive in spousal benefits depending on when they decide to collect them. Whenever you end up applying for benefits, the Social Security Administration will automatically determine whether your own or spousal benefits are greater and will distribute the higher value.

Spouses may also want to consider whether or not to start collecting their own benefits before receiving spousal benefits later, giving the primary worker the option to delay collecting their own benefits. Once the primary worker chooses to collect her benefits, the Social Security Administration will automatically provide the higher value benefit to the spouse who is already collecting. This means that he can continue to collect his own benefits until his spouse is ready to collect his. Note that he can only accept his own benefits or the spousal benefits, not both.

Regardless of when the primary worker chooses to collect benefits, the spouse will be eligible to receive up to 50% of their primary insurance amount. In other words, the value of spousal benefits does not change if the primary worker collects his or hers at the earliest age or waits until age 70.

Spouses can also collect benefits before age 62 (provided the primary worker is already collecting) if they have a child with a disability or a child under 16.

Benefits for ex-spouses

Like spousal benefits, ex-spouse benefits are worth up to 50% of the primary worker’s benefits and can be reduced if you start collecting them before your full retirement age.

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Blair explains that there are two types of benefits for ex-spouses. To qualify for the normal divorced spouse benefit, you must be at least 62 years old, single (regardless of the primary worker’s current marital status), must have been married to the primary worker for at least 10 years, and the primary worker must also you should get your benefits, says Blair.

Please note that the independent entitled divorced spouse does not need the primary worker to be collecting benefits in order to collect ancillary benefits based on their work history. However, some of the requirements remain the same: he must be at least 62 years old, single, and have been married for at least 10 years. However, if your ex-spouse is also 62 or older and you’ve been divorced for two years or more, it doesn’t matter if you applied for benefits or not, Blair says, since you can still apply based on your work record.

Applicants for Social Security benefits have the option of indicating whether or not they have had a previous marriage lasting at least 10 years on their application. The Social Security Administration then determines whether individuals would be eligible for ex-spouse benefits.

If you’re not eligible for the independent right divorced spouse benefit and your spouse hasn’t started collecting their own benefits, it’s your responsibility to contact the Social Security Administration to see if your ex-spouse has elected to start collecting, Blair says.

Widow’s (or surviving spouse’s) benefits

Editorial note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are solely those of Select’s editorial staff and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any third party.