Social Security Benefits: Spouses, Ex-spouses and Surviving Spouses

Social Security

Social Security Benefits: Spouses, Ex-spouses and Surviving Spouses

Posted by COTO Insurance & Financial Services
5 years ago | July 30, 2019

As you begin the retirement planning process, it’s important to have a strategic income plan with regard to Social Security benefits. It is particularly important for married couples to consider not only when the primary breadwinner should begin drawing benefits but also how that start date could affect a spouse whose benefit is derived from that income history. 1

There are two requirements for drawing benefits based on a spouse’s earning record: 2

  1. The primary earner must be at least age 62 and already drawing Social Security.
  2. The spouse may not begin benefits until age 62.

If the primary earner starts taking benefits before full retirement age, both their benefit amount and the spousal benefit amount will be permanently reduced. This means the total amount of benefits that the couple receives throughout their lifetime may be less than if the primary breadwinner waited until full retirement age. Note that if the spouse also has a work record, he or she will automatically receive the higher benefit based on earnings history or the qualified amount under the spouse’s benefit.3

A lot of people think they’ll simply start drawing Social Security when they retire. However, there are various strategies to consider, including living off savings for the first few years of retirement to allow your Social Security benefit to continue to accrue. If you’d like help figuring out how to develop and coordinate multiple retirement income streams with your Social Security strategy, we’re here to help.

Things become more complicated when spouses are divorced. An ex-spouse can receive benefits based on your earnings record, even if you have remarried. The number of ex-spouses you might have in this situation doesn’t matter; their benefits won’t affect yours or your current spouse’s — there is not a fixed amount that will run out. However, a divorced spouse must meet the following criteria to receive benefits based on your record:4

  • Your marriage must have lasted 10 years or longer.
  • The ex-spouse must remain unmarried.
  • The ex-spouse must be age 62 or older.
  • The benefit to which your ex-spouse is entitled must be higher than that based on his or her own work history.

An ex-spouse attempting to claim benefits based on an ex-spouse’s earnings record is no longer eligible for that benefit if she remarries. If she remarries after already receiving benefits, those payouts will terminate.5

However, if her subsequent marriage ends — through death, divorce or annulment — she can resume her prior Social Security benefits based on her first spouse’s record. She can even apply for the first spouse’s benefit if he hasn’t retired yet, as long as he qualifies for them. The only caveat is that the couple must have been divorced for at least two years.6

If a married couple has begun receiving benefits and the primary income earner dies, the spouse may begin receiving the deceased spouse’s benefit amount (assuming it is higher) in place of his or her own.7


Content prepared by Kara Stefan Communications.

1 Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement. “Social Security Spousal Benefits.” Accessed May 27, 2019.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Social Security Administration. “Retirement Benefits Your Divorced Spouse.” Accessed May 27, 2019.

5 Dana Anspach. The Balance. Jan. 15, 2019. “Social Security Benefits for an Ex-Spouse.” Accessed May 27, 2019.

6 Social Security Administration. “If You Are Divorced.” Accessed May 27, 2019.

7 Jim Borland. Social Security Administration. Jan. 24, 2019. “Understanding Spouse’s Benefits.” Accessed May 27, 2019.

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