Social Security benefits for spouses and ex-spouses

A little-known feature of the Social Security system is that in addition to paying benefits for a retired worker, it may provide benefits to the worker’s spouse, an ex-spouse if the marriage lasted at least 10 years, and dependent children and grandchildren, depending on the circumstances. Here is a general description of the benefits for spouses and ex-spouses.

Your spouse is entitled to an amount equal to one-half of your full primary insurance amount (PIA). In order to receive this benefit, your spouse must be at least 62 years of age or caring for your child, who is entitled to receive benefits and is either younger than 16 or disabled.
It may be that your spouse could receive more from Social Security based on his or her own earnings record than through your spousal benefit. If this is the case, the Social Security Administration (SSA) automatically provides your spouse with the larger benefit.

If you retire early, your spouse will still receive benefits based on one-half of the PIA you would have received had you waited until full retirement age to retire. But in order to receive a full half of your PIA, your spouse must wait to begin receiving the retirement benefits at her full retirement age. If she opts to receive benefits before that time, she will be penalized according to a formula similar to that used to compute the reduced benefits of workers who retire early.

Benefits for a divorced spouse

If you are the retired worker, your divorced spouse is eligible to receive an amount equal to one-half of your PIA, provided the marriage lasted at least 10 years. The rules are similar to those for spousal benefits described above, except that your divorced spouse can begin receiving benefits even before you have begun receiving benefits yourself.

Divorced spouses who had more than one marriage that lasted at least 10 years do not receive multiple benefit checks, one for each marriage. But the SSA does automatically choose the former marriage that will yield the largest benefit to the ex-spouse.

Survivor’s benefits

If you die and your spouse has by that time reached full retirement age, your spouse begins receiving your actual benefits. This is true even if you and your spouse have divorced, so long as you had been married for at least 10 years. If your surviving spouse has not yet reached full retirement age but is at least age 60, he or she receives an actuarially reduced percentage of your benefits. At age 60, for example, she will receive 71.5 percent of your actual benefits. This percentage increases each year until she reaches full retirement age herself, at which point she begins receiving 100 percent of your actual benefits. Spouses younger than 60 may be able to receive benefits in limited circumstances, such as cases of disability or if they are caring for a disabled child.

Finally, widows and widowers (if not divorced) of a deceased worker or his or her children under age 18 are entitled to a lump sum death benefit.

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