What Married Couples Need to Know About Social Security

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With Social Security, being in a relationship can be complicated. Marriage, divorce, name changes, and (sadly) death all affect the benefits you may receive.

Spousal benefits

Let’s 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.

The benefit the spouse receives may be up to half the worker’s benefit but will be reduced if the spouse is not at full retirement age (FRA). 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 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, be at least 62, and be currently unmarried. And filing on an ex’s record is usually only worth it if your own benefit would be less than the benefit you’d receive using your ex’s. 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 correctly.

Same-sex marriage

What if you and your spouse are the same sex? Not a problem. Citing a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Social Security agrees marriage is marriage. 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 help from the government if your spouse passes away? It’s not much. A surviving spouse may get a one-time $255 benefit if certain requirements are met. That lump sum hasn’t changed since 1954.

Survivor’s benefits

In addition to the one-time $255 check a spouse may receive, there is also the possibility of ongoing survivor’s benefits. 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.


If a spouse dies before filing for benefits, the survivor’s benefit is calculated as if he or she had reached full retirement age. If the deceased spouse was already collecting early benefits (a reduced amount before full retirement age) the survivor’s benefit is calculated using that amount.

You might assume that if your spouse dies, you continue to receive that person’s Social Security plus your own, and the household continues receiving two checks a month. 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 extra payments to equal that higher amount. But only that one check.

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. Congress in 2015 erased most of those loopholes. But 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 turning 70. At that point, he or she can claim an 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 from Social Security before you take the plunge.


Have you found any sources that explain complicated Social Security issues? Share them with the community.


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.