Social Security and Marriage: The Basics

Why It Matters:

  • Being married affects your relationship with Social Security.
  • The old claiming strategies for married couples are largely gone, but there are still things to think about.
  • Social Security has plenty of online help for married couples seeking to understand their benefits.

Chase Squires tkc.profilePicture Written by: Chase Squires | Transamerica
Nov. 23, 2017

4-5 Min readClock Icon

When it comes to Social Security benefits, being in a relationship can be a little complicated. And sometimes things you think you know, you may not really have a handle on (like when one spouse dies, the other gets his or her Social Security check, right? Stay tuned).

Spousal benefits

We’ll start with an easier one: spousal benefits. When a worker files for Social Security retirement benefits, the spouse may also file for a benefit based on the working spouse’s earnings. That benefit can be up to half of the worker’s benefit, if the spouse begins receiving benefits before full retirement age, the spouse will receive a reduced benefit.

The spouse must be at least 62 or be caring for a child under age 16 or who is receiving Social Security disability benefits.

If the spouse is eligible for his/her own retirement benefit, and that benefit would be higher than the worker’s benefit, Social Security will actually pay the higher of the two.

Spousal benefits for divorced couples

Now, what if you were married to someone who made a lot more than you and you want to claim on the ex’s earnings? No worries, go for it.

To file on a spouse’s record you must have been married at least 10 years and be currently unmarried, at least 62 years old, and your own benefit would be less than the benefit you’d receive using your ex’s record. And here are some interesting related tidbits: your ex doesn’t have to give permission; your filing won’t affect your ex’s own benefits; and your ex doesn’t even have to have filed for benefits, as long as he or she is eligible to file for them.

These are just the basics. A full list of the rules is available here.

Name change

If you get married and change your name – or if you get divorced and change it back – tell Social Security. Any time you change your name you need to let Social Security know, so your earnings are recorded. You’ll get a new Social Security card, too.

Same-sex marriage

What if you and your spouse are the same sex? Not a problem. Citing a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, marriage is marriage in the eyes of Social Security. Social Security recognizes same-sex marriage from all states and even some non-marital legal relationships (some civil unions and domestic partnerships).

Spousal death benefit

Counting on a little help from the government when your spouse passes away? It’s not much. A surviving spouse gets a one-time $255 benefit. That lump sum hasn’t changed since 1954.

Survivor’s benefits

Here’s where it gets tricky. If a worker passes away, the spouse can apply for survivor’s benefits (monthly payments) as early as age 60. If the survivor’s own retirement benefit would be higher, he or she can switch to that benefit as early as 62.

You might assume that if your spouse dies, you assume that person’s Social Security and the household continues receiving two checks. But that’s not the case.

When a spouse dies, if he or she was receiving a larger monthly benefit than the survivor, the survivor would receive an extra amount to equal that higher amount. But total household income declines because now there’s only one check. For example, if one spouse received $1,200 a month and the other received $1,500, total household income would be $2,700 a month. But if the higher-earning spouse died, the survivor would only “step up” to the $1,500 monthly benefit, an increase to the survivor’s check, but a $1,200 overall decline in household income.

And one more thing

Marriage and Social Security used to have a bit more complicated relationship. There were ways for a couple to work together to increase their potential lifetime benefits. But Congress in 2015 erased most of those loopholes.

For some people (and there are fewer every year), there is still a way to file what’s called a restricted application and potentially increase lifetime household benefits. One strategy remains for couples born before 1954 if both are entitled to Social Security benefits based on their own work record. At full retirement age one spouse can apply for spousal benefits on the other’s benefits, leaving his or her own benefits to increase until they turn 70, then they claim their own, enhanced benefit.

A financial professional and the Social Security Administration can help you understand if this provision is available and helpful in your case. And the Social Security website (ssa.gov) has a wealth of information, FAQs, newsletters, calculators, and more, to help you know what to expect before you take the plunge.

Things to Consider:
  • Even if you’re years away from retirement, you may want to start learning about how married couples claim Social Security benefits.
  • Knowing what to expect from Social Security can help couples understand their retirement income needs.
  • Asking a friend or an older relative might not get you the most accurate answers about Social Security and spousal benefits. SSA.gov has several publications available online.

Neither Transamerica nor its agents or representatives may provide tax, investment or legal advice. Anyone to whom this material is promoted, marketed, or recommended should consult with and rely on their own independent tax and legal advisors and financial professional regarding their particular situation and the concepts presented herein.

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