Understanding Social Security Spousal and Survivor Benefits

Daniel Penzing
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Spousal Benefits

If you’re eligible to receive Social Security spousal benefits, you can start drawing them any time between the ages of 62 and 70. But you can maximize your spousal benefit if you wait until your full retirement age (or later). That’s the time when you’re eligible for the maximum Social Security monthly benefit amount, and when your spouse’s benefit is maximized.

If you’re in your younger and fitter years, you may want to consider taking the benefits at age 62. That’s a common practice among certain groups of people. For example, many widows and widowers begin taking Social Security spousal benefits at 62. That’s because they’re usually in their 60s, and they’re generally in good health. Because of their relatively good health, they’re able to rely on their own income and investments while claiming Social Security spousal benefits.

After your full retirement age and until you become eligible to take delayed retirement benefits, the amount that you receive each month will increase slightly each year.

So you should wait to claim your spousal benefits as long as possible.

Spousal Benefits for an Ex-Spouse

The Social Security Administration allows a spouse to claim benefits based on his or her deceased husband or wife’s earnings record. For example, if a wife worked and paid Social Security taxes during her working years, she can draw Spousal Benefits (at least temporarily). She is not entitled to her own work record of Social Security earnings, especially if her earnings were very low.

Spousal benefits are not based on need. A spouse can be a millionaire and still collect Spousal Benefits based on his or her deceased husband or wife’s earnings. There are no limits based on income when it comes to Spousal Benefits.

Where is the Catch?

You can see that Spousal Benefits are not so much as an entitlement as they are a back-door option. They are something you can request if you are eligible, and it’s up to your surviving spouse whether he or she agrees to your request. It’s the surviving spouse’s option to agree to your request or reject it…. with or without an explanation.

Survivor’s Benefits

Spousal/survivor benefits only apply to individuals who were married at any time and were under the age of 70. To qualify for benefits, your spouse must have filed for SS benefits or died without having filed for them. If your spouse is applying for social security in the months before his or her death, your survivor’s benefits may be slightly lower. If your spouse dies, your survivor benefits will not be affected. Your benefits may be affected, however, if your spouse is applying for lifetime benefits. In this case, the two of you would both qualify for benefits, and your benefits would be reduced by a set amount.

If you were born in November 1946 or later, you will need to have been married at least one year for your eligibility to be dependent upon your spouse’s death. If you were born in 1945 or prior, you will need to have been married for at least ten years.

The amount of your survivor’s benefit is determined by the amount of lifetime benefits your spouse would have gotten. The maximum amount of survivor’s benefits you can collect is 50 percent of your spouse’s lifetime benefits, so long as you are older than the full retirement age. If you are filing after your spouse’s death and you are not yet full retirement age, you will not be able to collect any benefits.


A basic understanding of the Social Security system allows you to craft a strategy for your own family. As people receive their W-2 tax forms as early as January, they are interested in finding out how they are going to be taxed. Also, each year about this time, the Social Security annual report is also released, and anyone who is interested in how program changes will affect them can go online to find out how that will work out.

Understanding some of the basics of the Social Security program can help both people who may get benefits themselves, and those who are concerned for dependent family members. First, Social Security is not a pension or retirement program. Instead, it is what financial planners call a “pay as you go” program. It is part of the Federal Insurance System, along with Medicare and other programs.

Social Security began in 1935 as a program to assist retirees with extra income, also a part of the New Deal initiatives begun by President Roosevelt. It was financed by both employers and employees in the form of a payroll tax, and the benefits received were related to the income of the worker and how long they might have worked. However, there was a financial crisis in the early 1980s, the Social Security system was going into the red, and something had to be done to save it.

In 1983, Congress and the Reagan Administration passed The Greenspan Commission legislation, financial reforms designed to save Social Security.