Do You Qualify for Social Security Benefits through Your Spouse or Ex?

April 24, 2024

Social Security, the largest federal benefit program in the U.S., primarily provides benefits for retired workers. But did you know it also provides benefits for millions of workers’ spouses and ex-spouses?

If you didn’t, then you’re in good company. More than 4 in 10 near-retirees do not know that divorced people can collect Social Security benefits based on their ex-spouse’s earnings, according to the 2024 edition of insurance and financial firm MassMutual’s annual survey on Social Security knowledge. This blog post covers some basics: what Social Security is, and how people usually qualify. It also covers the benefits for spouses and those who are widowed—the vast majority of whom are women. Social Security can also cover others, like children, parents and those who have a disability, though those program components are not the focus of this post.

Social Security Helps Millions

Social Security gave benefits to 66 million people in 2022, and was the largest antipoverty program in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Over half (55%) of beneficiaries are women, and Social Security in 2022 lifted 9.4 million older women from poverty, compared with 7.1 million older men, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

People of retirement age may qualify for benefits based on their own earnings records, those of their spouses or ex-spouses, or a combination. In 2022, 40% of women (PDF) ages 62 and older were receiving at least some of their benefits on the basis of their spouses’ earning records. Spousal and survivor benefits disproportionately help women because women tend to earn less than men and are less likely than men to have pensions or employer-sponsored 401(k)s. Women also live longer than men, on average, meaning their more modest funds must be stretched further. Social Security benefits are adjusted annually by the cost of living—a particularly useful design for those who live a long time.

What Is Social Security, and How Do You Get Benefits?

The legislation that created Social Security was a response to the Great Depression in the 1930s. It was designed to help older adults be more financially secure (PDF) by providing monthly benefits, or payments, upon retirement. While Social Security has evolved since then, that primary goal has remained.

Benefits are funded entirely by payroll taxes paid by workers and their employers as well as by self-employed individuals. In general, benefits are tied to how much the receiving worker earned each year (up to a set taxable maximum: the cap on the amount of earnings subject to Social Security tax), adjusted for wage growth. The 35 highest earning years are used to calculate average indexed monthly earnings. Monthly benefits are a percentage of these averaged earnings, and they’re progressive: Lower earners get a larger percentage of their average earnings as Social Security benefits. (See box.)

So, how does one actually qualify for Social Security retirement benefits? The most common way is 1) to be 62 or older (though there is a penalty if you don’t wait until “full retirement” age: 66 or 67 depending on your birth year), and 2) to have worked at least 10 years while paying Social Security taxes.Years do not have to be full calendar years to be counted. A total of 40 quarters, earning a minimum required amount, can be summed across one’s earning life. Widows and widowers may receive benefits earlier than usual, especially if they’re raising children under age 16. But there are additional ways to qualify.

Who Qualifies for Social Security? Spouses Can

Today, Social Security includes three types of benefits: retirement, survivor (i.e., the worker has died) and disability. Spouses in each of these categories are eligible as well.

For those of full retirement age, Social Security provides spousal benefits equal to 50% of the worker’s benefit, whether the spouse has any worker benefits or not. While this option is open to both men and women, most (93%) spousal retirement benefits go to women because they are less likely to have met the 10-year earnings requirement and they tend to have lower wages than men.

Ten is an important number: People who are divorced and not currently married but were married for at least 10 years are similarly eligible for 50% of the benefit to which their ex-spouse is entitled, even if that ex-spouse remarries. Those who are widowed (95% of whom are women) are eligible for 100% of their deceased spouse’s benefit. The flowchart below illustrates these points.*

Social Security Eligibility: Qualifying through a Spouse

Answer the questions and follow the arrows indicated to the next condition until no more conditions apply.

A flowchart shows Social Security benefits for which someone may qualify based on their earnings or those of their spouse or former spouse.

NOTE: The benefit percentages assume you are of full retirement age. There are additional nuances that can be more fully explored on the Social Security Administration’s website.

Benefits from Your Earnings, Your Spouse’s or Both?

Even those who qualify for their own worker benefits may want to explore their potential spousal benefits. The lower earner in a marriage can use the earnings record of their spouse or ex-spouse to boost their Social Security benefits, by “topping off” their own worker benefits. About 23% of women fit into this category in 2022, a share significantly bigger than it was in 1960, at 5%, meaning more women are qualifying for their own worker benefits. Note: Benefits can be “topped-off” but not added together. That is, beneficiaries can bring their benefit amount up to the highest monthly level they would be eligible for through a spouse or former spouse.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example for “Stacey”:

  • Stacey is retiring at 67 after working for 35 years as a clerk. She qualifies for her own worker retirement benefits of $1,200 a month.
  • Jason, Stacey’s deceased husband, worked for 12 years as an ambulance driver. His benefits would have been $900 a month. Stacey could receive 100% of those benefits as Jason’s widow.
  • Mike, to whom Stacey was married for 10 years, is 67 and still working as an engineer. He qualifies for $3,000 a month. Stacey’s benefits as Mike’s ex-wife are half of that, or $1,500 a month, which she can claim even if Mike hasn’t applied for retirement benefits.

Stacey’s own retirement benefits are higher than what she would get as Jason’s widow, but her benefits as Mike’s ex-wife are higher than her own. So she can receive Social Security benefits up to $1,500 a month: $1,200 from her own worker benefits and $300 more from her benefits as Mike’s ex-wife. Mike would still receive his full benefits, and his current spouses or other ex-spouses he was married to for at least 10 years would also be eligible to receive benefits on his record.

Women who do not explore all avenues of eligibility could be leaving Social Security money—an important source of income in retirement—on the table.

Yet women who have never been married must rely on only their own earnings. They don’t have the option of spousal or survivor benefits and thus can’t “top off” their own worker benefits. These women also tend to have very low financial security and little wealth, putting many of them in a precarious financial position for retirement. Social Security benefits have evolved since the program’s beginnings (e.g., with the addition of benefits for wives in 1939 and ex-wives in 1965).

With the share of never-married adults projected to continue increasing, and the higher risk of poverty among women, Social Security benefits may again expand to help protect this vulnerable group. For example, future research could explore the viability of adding caregiver credits, which improve benefits for people who spend time caring for relatives. These credits, used in the majority of European Union member states, including France, Germany and Sweden, could be especially helpful for caregivers who do not have or have not had a spouse from which they could get a higher benefit.

Determining eligibility for Social Security benefits can be complex, and there are exceptions and additional nuances to the information in this blog post. Tools from the Social Security Administration can help you calculate your own potential benefits.

*Editor’s Note: A previous version of this post had an incorrect connection in the flowchart. The post has been updated with a corrected flowchart. 

Note

  1. Years do not have to be full calendar years to be counted. A total of 40 quarters, earning a minimum required amount, can be summed across one’s earning life. Widows and widowers may receive benefits earlier than usual, especially if they’re raising children under age 16.
About the Authors
Heidi Hartmann

Heidi Hartmann is a research fellow for the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Read more about her work.

Heidi Hartmann

Heidi Hartmann is a research fellow for the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Read more about her work.

Ana Hernández Kent
Ana Hernández Kent

Ana Hernández Kent is a senior researcher with the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Her research interests include economic disparities and the role of systemic biases and historical factors in wealth outcomes. Read more about Ana’s research.

Ana Hernández Kent
Ana Hernández Kent

Ana Hernández Kent is a senior researcher with the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Her research interests include economic disparities and the role of systemic biases and historical factors in wealth outcomes. Read more about Ana’s research.

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This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.


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