How Your Marital Status Affects Your Social Security Benefits

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Maximizing Social Security benefits must be your objective right from the start. Though several factors can help you do that, one of your major life events can also help you in it – your marital status. Whether you are currently married, divorced or widowed, your marital status can affect your benefits amount in many ways. So, to help you, this article will discuss how marital status affects your Social Security benefits.

Why is your marital status important for Social Security?

Your benefits amount is indeed based on your earnings history and the age at which you claim the benefits. Still, your marital status could affect your final benefits amount, especially if you are currently married. Also, if both you and your spouse are eligible for benefits, the final benefit amount of one of the spouses may drastically increase because of their marital status.

Moreover, a married or divorced person may qualify for a special type of Social Security, called spousal benefits. As of January 2024, the average spousal benefit collected was $912 per month. On the other hand, if you are widowed, you can qualify for survivor benefits, which could be significantly more than the spousal benefits.

So, whether you are married, divorced or widowed, your marital status has the potential to significantly impact your benefits. Exactly how your marital status affects your Social Security benefits is discussed below.

How marital status affects your Social Security benefits

Discussed below is how each type of marital status affects your Social Security benefits:

If you are currently married

There are two Social Security scenarios if you are married. The first is if one spouse earns benefits and the other doesn’t, and the second is if both spouses earn their own benefits.

Regarding the first scenario, if one spouse works and the other doesn’t, the spouse who doesn’t work may qualify for the benefits based on the working spouse’s work history. The non-working spouse may qualify for up to 50% of the working spouse’s benefits even if the former never paid into Social Security.

The non-working spouse qualifies for the benefits at age 62 or even earlier if he or she takes care of a child below 16 years or receives disability benefits. As with other retirement benefits, the spousal benefits are also reduced if claimed before the full retirement age (FRA).

As for the second scenario where both spouses qualify for benefits, the spouse with lower earnings has the option to claim the benefit based on their work record or based on the other spouse’s working record.

Suppose one spouse is entitled to a monthly benefit of $2,000 and the other spouse is entitled to $800 in benefits based on their respective work records. In such a case, the spouse eligible for $800 can claim spousal benefits, which will be $1,000 (50% of the other spouse), i.e., $200 more. 

It must be noted that a person can’t collect spousal benefits and their own benefits at the same time. Couples, however, can plan when to claim benefits if both are eligible for benefits based on their work record.

For instance, one can file early, while the other can wait until FRA. In such a case, the non-filing spouse will be eligible for spousal benefits, and later, when the non-filing spouse files for benefits, he or she will be automatically awarded the bigger payout, i.e., the higher of the spousal benefit or benefit based on their own work record.

If you are divorced

Benefits to divorced persons are similar to spousal benefits. To qualify for divorced spouse benefits, the person must not be currently married, their last marriage must have lasted for at least ten years, must have been divorced for at least two continuous years and be at least 62 years old.

Similar to spousal benefits, the maximum benefit that the divorced person will receive will be 50% of the benefit that the ex-spouse will receive at FRA. Also, if the divorced person is entitled to benefits based on their work history, he or she will be allowed to receive the higher of the two.

It must be noted that claiming divorced spouse benefits will in no way impact the benefits of the ex-spouse. Even if your ex-spouse has remarried, it won’t affect your eligibility to claim divorced spouse benefits. Also, if the ex-spouse has remarried, then claiming divorced spouse benefits won’t impact the ability of the current spouse to claim the spousal benefits.

If you are widowed

A spouse’s death will affect the surviving spouse’s Social Security benefits. The surviving spouse, in this case, could be entitled to survivor benefits provided they are at least 60 years old, or at least 50 years old if they are disabled, or of any age if they are taking care of the deceased spouse’s child who is below 16 years (or is receiving disability benefits).

Unlike the spousal and divorce benefits, the survivor benefit could be 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit. If both spouses earn benefits, then after the death of one, the surviving spouse will be entitled to receive the higher of the two amounts.

Although survivor benefits are mainly available to spouses, other family members may also qualify for survivor benefits, including parents and children. The benefit amount in such a case would depend on the recipients’ relation with the deceased, as well as other factors, such as the earnings history of the deceased person and the age of the recipient.

Final Words

In summary, these are the ways in which marital status affects your Social Security benefits. It is very important that you understand how your marital status affects your benefits before you claim or plan to claim Social Security.

Also, it is important for you to know that, unlike standard retirement benefits, spousal or divorced spouse benefits don’t increase if you delay claiming past your FRA. Even if your spouse or ex-spouse delays Social Security, it won’t boost your benefits. The highest amount you will be entitled to is 50% of your spouse’s FRA benefit.