Social Security is a program that is a critical source of income for many retirees—in fact, 65% of all beneficiaries receive at least 50% of their income from Social Security. It’s also a complex program with hundreds of strategies you can use to claim your Social Security benefits.

Knowing how and when to claim Social Security benefits is challenging. When considering filing for a Social Security spousal benefit, those challenges are magnified. Here’s a brief overview of the spousal benefit you may be entitled to, whether you’re still married, divorced or widowed.

Types of Social Security Spousal Benefits

If You Are Currently Married

Your spousal benefit can be worth up to 50% of your spouse’s Social Security benefit, but in order to claim your spousal benefit, your spouse must have already begun collecting Social Security. Generally speaking, you can begin claiming spousal benefits once you reach age 62, although you will receive a permanently reduced benefit if you claim prior to reaching your full retirement age (FRA), which varies based on your birth year.

It’s also important to note that the amount of your spousal benefit is based on your spouse’s FRA. This means that even if your spouse claims his/her benefit prior to reaching FRA, your spousal benefit won’t be impacted. For example, if you begin claiming a spousal benefit at your FRA, you’ll receive 50% of your spouse’s full FRA benefit. If, however, you claim your spousal benefit at age 62, you’ll receive a reduced benefit of about 32.5% of your spouse’s FRA benefit.

You should keep in mind that if you can receive a Social Security benefit off of your own work record, you can only receive one or the other. You’ll generally want to claim the higher of the two, although your financial advisor could help you determine instances where that may not be the case.

If You Are Divorced

If you are currently divorced, are age 62 or older, and were married for at least 10 years to your ex-spouse, you are eligible to claim a spousal benefit based on their work history. Unlike those who are still married, you can receive a spousal benefit as long as you’ve been divorced for at least two years—even if your ex-spouse hasn’t begun receiving their own Social Security benefit. Plus, claiming a spousal benefit off of your ex-spouse’s work history has no impact on their benefit.

If your former spouse has remarried, that has no impact on your spousal benefit. However, if you remarry, you will no longer be able to receive a benefit based on your ex-spouse’s work record—unless that second marriage also ends.

If You Are Widowed

Widow(er)s can begin receiving a survivors benefit as early as age 60, although this will lead to a permanently reduced benefit; delaying your benefit up to age 70 will increase the amount of your survivors benefit. Surviving spouses can claim a reduced benefit based on one working record, then switch to the other benefit at a later date in order to increase the total amount received later in retirement.

If your spouse died prior to filing for Social Security and hadn’t reached their FRA, you will typically be eligible for up to 100% of your spouse’s FRA benefit. If your spouse died after reaching FRA without claiming Social Security, you can receive up to 100% of the benefit your spouse would have been eligible for at the date of death.

Although the instances described above are the most common, it should be noted that this is not an exhaustive analysis of the various avenues to claim a spousal benefit through Social Security. This list also does not take into account all of the individual factors unique to your situation that will impact your decision for claiming Social Security benefits. We recommend speaking with a financial advisor who can help you fully understand what options are available to you and identify the strategies that can help you maximize these powerful benefits.

Updated January 2020. A version of this article originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on May 17, 2015.

Bruce Helmer

Bruce Helmer

Co-Founder, Financial Advisor and Author, Speaker and Host of the "Your Money" Radio Show

Series 7 & 63 Securities Registrations,1 Series 66 Advisory Registration, † Insurance License Bruce has been in the financial services industry since 1983 and is one of the founders of Wealth Enhancement Group. Since 1997, he has hosted the “Your Money” radio show, a weekly program that focuses on delivering financial advice in a straightforward, jargon-free manner. Bruce also hosts with the "Mid-Morning" crew on WCCO-TV each Tuesday morning to...Read More