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Social Security doesn't just pay retirement benefits to retired workers; in some circumstances, it also provides benefits to a worker's spouse or ex-spouse and to a deceased worker's surviving spouse. Here are the ins and outs of spouse and survivor benefits.
Spouses are entitled to benefits if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. A spouse is entitled to an amount equal to one-half of the worker's full retirement benefit. To receive this benefit, you must be at your full retirement age or caring for a child who is under 16 years old. In addition, your spouse must have filed for Social Security retirement benefits even if he or she isn't receiving them.
If you could receive more from Social Security based on your own earnings record than through the spousal benefit, the Social Security Administration will automatically provide you with the larger benefit. If you have reached your full retirement age, you may also elect to receive spousal benefits and delay taking your benefits, allowing your own delayed retirement credits to accrue, and switch to your own benefit at a later date. However, you cannot elect to receive spousal benefits below your retirement age and later switch to your own benefits.
If you begin collecting your spousal benefit before your full retirement age, your spousal benefit will be permanently reduced. But if your spouse retires early, but you wait until your full retirement age, you will still receive benefits based on one-half of his or her full retirement benefit.
An ex-spouse is also entitled to receive one half of the worker's full retirement benefit as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Unlike a current spouse, a divorced spouse can begin receiving benefits even before the worker has applied for benefits. The worker must be at least 62 years old and the divorce must have been final for at least two years.
If you are a surviving spouse at full retirement age, you are entitled to the worker's full retirement benefits. If the worker delayed retirement, the survivor's benefit will be higher. Survivors are entitled to benefits even if they are divorced as long as they had been married for at least 10 years. If you file for benefits before you are over age 60, but below full retirement age, you will receive a reduced percentage of the worker's benefits. Surviving spouses who are younger than 60 receive benefits only in limited circumstances, such as cases of disability or caring for a disabled child.