Differences Between Spousal and Survivor Benefits, Explained

What you need to know about spousal and survivor benefits.

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Many people are easily confused by Social Security spousal benefits and survivor benefits. The two benefits are similar because they are both based solely on the spouse’s work history.

Spousal benefits are based on a living spouse or ex-spouse’s work history.

Survivor benefits are based on a deceased spouse or ex-spouse’s work history.

However, there are some very important differences:


Spousal Benefits

  • The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of the worker’s full retirement age (FRA) benefit.
  • The benefit is based on the worker’s FRA benefit and is not enhanced by delayed retirement credits.
  • Age 62 is the earliest a spouse can claim a spousal benefit. If the spouse files prior to FRA, they would receive a reduced amount of the worker’s benefit stepping up to 50% if they filed at FRA.
  • They must be married for at least 12 months to qualify for the benefit.
  • If divorced, you may still be able to apply for benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work if you were married at least 10 years and are currently unmarried.

Survivor Benefits

  • The maximum survivor benefit is 100% of the deceased worker’s last Social Security benefit including any delayed retirement credits the worker may have accrued by waiting until age 70.
  • Survivor benefits would be based on the worker’s reduced benefit, not their FRA benefit if the deceased worker had applied for early benefits.
  • Age 60 is the earliest a spouse can claim a survivor benefit. The widow(er) could claim a survivor benefit equal to 71.5% of the deceased worker’s benefit stepping up to 100% if they filed at their FRA.
  • They must be married for at least 9 months to qualify for the benefit.
  • If divorced, you may still be able to apply for benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work if you were married for at least 10 years and are currently unmarried.

The recent Social Security changes affecting the file-and-suspend strategy and phased out restricted filing only apply to spousal benefits. A surviving spouse could apply for reduced survivor benefits before full retirement age. They would still be eligible to collect their full benefit at 66 or even accrue delayed credits by waiting until age 70.

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