The days of relying entirely on Social Security to fund retirement are long gone; however, Social Security retirement benefits continue to play a significant role in financing the retirement years for many retirees. If you recently lost a spouse, finances may be especially tight for you, leaving you to wonder whether you are entitled to any assistance based on your deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits. A Los Angeles elder law attorney at Collins Law Firm helps explain when you might be entitled to your spouse’s Social Security benefits.
The Social Security System
The Social Security retirement program is based on contributions workers make to the system. While you are employed, you pay into Social Security, and then you receive benefits when you retire. On your paycheck, the contributions will appear as the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes. Although it is no longer the case, for decades after the birth of the Social Security retirement system many workers could realistically expect to live comfortably during their “Golden Years” on the combined income from an employer-sponsored pension and their Social Security benefits.
To qualify for Social Security Retirement benefits you accumulate credits that are based on your earnings over the course of your working years. The amount you need to earn to accumulate a credit has increased over the years to keep up with inflation. For example, for 2022, you get one credit for every $1,510 you earn, up to a limit of four credits per year. Once a credit is earned it remains on your record forever. If you were born after 1929, you need 40 credits to receive Social Security retirement benefits. Therefore, most people alive today must have worked at least ten years over the course of their lifetime to be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. What happens, however, if your spouse was the only one who worked outside of the home or earned significantly more than you during your working years? In that case, you may be entitled to benefits based on the work history of your deceased spouse following his/her death.
Social Security Spousal Benefits
Even if you never contributed to Social Security, you may be eligible for benefits if you are at least 62 years of age, and your spouse is or was receiving retirement or disability benefits. If you are eligible for Social Security benefits based on your own work record, benefits will be paid to you based on that record first. If your spouse’s benefits are more than your own benefit amount, you are entitled to an additional amount so that the combination of benefits is equal to the higher amount.
If you were born before January 2, 1954, and have already reached full retirement age, you can choose to receive only your spouse’s benefit and delay receiving your own retirement benefit until a later date. The option to delay taking your own benefits is no longer available for anyone born after January 2, 1954.
You may even be eligible for benefits based on the work record of an ex-spouse if:
- Your marriage lasted 10 years or longer.
- You are unmarried.
- You are age 62 or older.
- The benefit that you are entitled to receive based on your own work history is less than the benefit you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s work.
- Your ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits.
Social Security Survivor Benefits
Although a worker must typically have 40 work credits to qualify for Social Security benefits, some surviving family members can get benefits if the worker has credit for one and one-half years of work (six credits) in the three years just before their death. The following surviving family members may be entitled to benefits based on the work record of a decedent:
- A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if they have a disability).
- A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances.
- A widow or widower at any age who is caring for the deceased’s child who is under age 16 or has a disability and receiving child’s benefits.
- An unmarried child of the deceased who is one of the following:
- Younger than age 18 (or up to age 19 if they are a full-time student in an elementary or secondary school).
- Age 18 or older with a disability that began before age 22.
How Much Will I Receive in Social Security Benefits?
The amount you will receive in Social Security benefits based on the benefits of a deceased spouse will vary but general guidelines include:
- A widow or widower at full retirement age or older receives 100 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit amount.
- A widow or widower from age 60 to full retirement age receives 71½ to 99 percent of the deceased worker’s basic amount.
- A widow or widower with a disability who is aged 50 through 59 receives 71½ percent of the deceased worker’s benefit amount.
- A widow or widower of any age who is caring for a child under age 16 receives 75 percent of the deceased worker’s benefit amount.
Contact a Los Angeles Elder Law Attorney
For more information, please join us for an upcoming FREE seminar. If you have elder law questions, contact an experienced Los Angeles elder law attorney. Contact the Collins Law Firm by calling (310) 677-9787 to register for one of our FREE estate planning workshops.