The Definitive Guide to Spouse, Ex-spouse, and Widow’s Benefits under Social Security

An elderly person’s retirement income often consists of the ‘three-legged stool’, as the National Institute of Retirement Security calls it. The Social Security program provides nearly 40% of men and women with more than 50% of their retirement income, ensuring that many elderly Americans will not end up in poverty.

Benefits for surviving spouses and widows were first provided to retired households in 1939. Those with no or little work experience can earn money through spousal benefits, based on the employment history of their spouse. Couples in non-marital legal relationships and married same-sex couples became eligible for spousal benefits in 2015. Women are especially benefitted by a spouse, ex-spouse, and widow benefits, since they may miss more work to take care of children or elderly parents. Approximately 60% of caregivers are women, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

A study by the Social Science Research Network, reported by CNBC, discovered women with one child amassed 16% less in Social Security benefits more than barren women. But, spousal benefits have cleared the discrepancy in Social Security earnings between them.

“The motherhood penalty is almost negligible among women receiving spousal benefits, but mothers who receive benefits on only their own earnings histories see significantly lower Social Security income,” the study found.

Spousal Benefits

A worker’s monthly benefits are calculated by the U.S. Social Security Administration using formulas based on their 35 highest-earning years. A worker must have worked at least 10 years before he or she is eligible for worker’s compensation benefits. A person with a longer record of steady employment tends to earn greater benefits than one who has battled years of low or no wages.

If a couple has been married for 12 months or more and the primary worker is already receiving spousal benefits, the spousal benefits are available at age 62. As long as the individual waits until full retirement age before collecting spouse benefits, those benefits can equal up to 50% of the primary worker’s benefit.

As a result, the amount of monthly spousal benefits will be reduced if someone begins collecting benefits before their full retirement age. Blair explains that if a spouse is still under their full retirement age and their full retirement age is 66, then their benefits can drop by as much as 30%. He says that those who begin collecting at the earliest possible age can see their benefits reduced by up to 35%.

“It just depends on your full retirement age as to how much of a reduction you’ll see,” says Blair.

According to the Social Security Administration, the average spousal benefit in 2022 will be $838.88. It’s important to remember that Social Security benefits and spousal benefits are primarily meant to supplement one’s retirement income, so it’s vital to save for retirement separately in addition to receiving these benefits. If you aren’t already maxing out your 401(k), you might want to consider opening a Traditional or Roth IRA. IRAs have no tax implications until the day you withdraw the funds.

An online calculator provides an estimate of the amount spousal benefits will be paid to an individual based on their choice of when to claim them. Social Security automatically determines whether your benefits or your spouse’s benefits are greater and distributes the highest valued one. It may also be worthwhile for spouses to consider whether or not to get their own benefits first, providing the primary worker with the option to slow down collecting their own benefits as time goes by. As soon as the primary worker elects to collect benefits, Social Security will automatically award the highest-value benefit to the spouse who already receives benefits. Consequently, you can continue receiving your own benefits until your spouse begins collecting theirs. It’s important to note that you are only permitted to accept your own benefits or spousal benefits, and not both.

The spouse will be eligible to receive 50% of the primary insurer’s benefits regardless of the date when the primary worker chooses to collect benefits. Therefore, spousal benefits do not change whether a primary worker collects them early or later. If your spouse has a child with a disability or if your child is under 16 years old, you may be able to collect benefits prior to age 62 (so long as your primary worker is already collecting).

Ex-spouse Benefits

Similarly to spousal benefits, ex-spouse benefits are worth up to 50% of the primary worker’s benefits but are reduced if they are started before you are fully retired.

The ex-spouse benefits are divided into two types, according to Blair. The divorced spouse benefit must be received by the 62-year-old person, who must be single (the primary worker’s marital status does not matter), married to the primary worker for at least ten years, and whose spouse must also be receiving their benefits, says Blair. A divorced spouse can collect auxiliary benefits based on their work record regardless of whether the primary worker is receiving benefits.

Although some of the requirements haven’t changed, including being at least 62, single, and married for at least ten years. If you have been divorced for at least two years and your ex-spouse lives with you, you can file regardless of whether they are applying for benefits or not, says Blair. A Social Security benefit applicant has the option of stating whether or not they previously had a marriage lasting at least 10 years on their application. Once that determination is made, the Social Security Administration determines if an individual is eligible for ex-spousal benefits.

According to Blair, if your spouse is not collecting their own Social Security benefits and you are not eligible for the separately entitled divorced spouse benefit, you have the responsibility to contact the Social Security Administration to see if your ex-spouse has chosen to start collecting.

Widow’s (or surviving spouse’s) Benefits

Individuals who start receiving widow’s (or surviving spouse’s) benefits at 60 will be eligible to receive 100% of what the deceased worker received. In the event of a second marriage, before you are 60 years old, you will no longer be eligible.

An individual can only receive his or her own benefits or the widow(er)’s (or surviving spouse’s) benefits. According to Blair, people can collect widow’s (or surviving spouse’s) benefits before switching to their own if the widow’s benefit is higher. The value of your monthly benefits increases by 8% for each year after full retirement age that you delay collecting them.

“So what Social Security allows you to do is take a lower benefit, in the beginning, to get a higher benefit later,” says Blair.

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