Social Security offers spouse benefits if you're married, or formerly married, to a beneficiary. This means if only one spouse works, earns money and pays payroll taxes into the system, the non-working spouse can draw benefits as well, with some conditions. The actual length of the marriage is an important consideration for spouse benefits.
If your spouse is already receiving Social Security retirement benefits, you must be at least 62 years old and have been married for at least 1 year to receive Social Security spousal benefits. If you're caring for a disabled child who is under the age of 16 or disabled, you qualify for spousal benefits, regardless of your age.
Social Security Beneficiary Age
Spouse benefits don't depend on the age of your spouse, or even whether they are working or not. If they are old or disabled enough to draw benefits, then you may qualify, depending on your own age and the length of the marriage. The minimum age for Social Security retirement is 62; you can apply for disability benefits at 18 or older. Taking Social Security retirement before your "full retirement age," however, means your benefit is permanently reduced. Full retirement age varies from 65 to 67, depending on the year of your birth.
Social Security Age of Spouse
For spouse benefits, you must be at least 62 years of age. The benefit you receive as a spouse is limited to one-half the benefit amount for the "worker of record," meaning someone who is eligible for the retirement on her own earnings. Social Security makes an exception if you are caring for a child under 16 who is also receiving benefits, or caring for a disabled child of any age. In this case, you can draw spouse benefits no matter how old you are, with an important condition on the length of the marriage.
Marriage Length for Social Security
To draw spouse benefits if your spouse is living, you must be married for at least a year. But to draw spouse benefits from an ex-spouse, your marriage must have lasted at least 10 years. When you apply, you must present a certified record of the marriage to Social Security. The length-of-marriage requirement also applies to divorced individuals applying for benefits as an ex-spouse (who lose their eligibility if they remarry).
Delayed Retirement for Social Security
If your spouse has reached her full retirement age, but not yet begun to collect benefits, then a useful option presents itself. She can apply for benefits and then have them suspended, while you plow ahead with a spouse application. Her eligibility means you can collect; in the meantime, delaying the benefits will increase the monthly amount she eventually will receive. This raises her Social Security benefit until she gets to age 70 -- at which point a Social Security retirement check only increases with the annual cost of living adjustment. If you go for the delayed retirement, the same rules apply: you must be 62 and married for 1 year if you're currently married, or age 62 and the marriage lasted at least 10 years if you're an ex-spouse.
Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.