Social Security Benefits for Single Vs. Married

by Rod Howell

Millions of individuals and married couples receive billions in monthly Social Security benefits each year. Your marital status determines how you qualify for Social Security disability, retirement or survivors benefits as well as how much you’re entitled to. Even if you’re divorced, you may be entitled to the same benefits as married spouses.

Qualifications

The qualifications to become eligible for Social Security are different for single and married individuals. If you’re not married, you qualify for Social Security benefits based on your work history. You must have accumulated the number of work credits required by the Social Security Administration and have paid Social Security taxes while you worked. If you’re married, only one spouse needs to meet the individual qualifications for Social Security benefits; the other spouse can receive spousal benefits as a result. To receive Social Security retirement or disability spousal benefits, you have to be married to your qualified spouse continuously for at least one year. For Social Security survivors' benefits, you have to be married for nine months prior to the death of your eligible spouse.

Benefit Amounts

As an individual, your Social Security benefit amount is based on your earnings history. Every year the Social Security Administration sends a form detailing how much you’re entitled to. As a spouse, you have a choice: both you and your spouse are entitled to receive your own Social Security benefits if you have both earned them by working, or the person receiving the lower amount can opt to receive the equivalent of half of the amount the higher-earning spouse earns. A spouse who hasn't worked enough to her own Social Security receives half of the amount her spouse receives as an additional spousal benefit. As a surviving spouse you can receive Social Security survivors' benefits ranging between 71.5 and 100 percent of your spouse’s benefit amount; the amount varies based on your and your deceased spouse's earnings.

Taxation

The taxation of your Social Security benefits is determined differently if you’re filing as an individual compared to filing jointly with your spouse. Your benefits become taxable if you or your spouse has substantial income outside of Social Security such as work earnings, dividends and self-employment income and your total income exceeds the IRS’s guidelines. As of 2012, if you’re filing individually, 50 percent of your Social Security benefits are taxed at normal income tax rates if your total annual income exceeds $25,000 per year and up to 85 percent if your income tops $34,000. If you’re married, the annual income limits are increased. Up to 50 percent of your Social Security benefits are taxed if your total combined income tops $34,000. The IRS taxes 85 percent of your benefits if your combined income surpasses $44,000.

Divorce

If you’re divorced, you receive benefits from your ex-spouse’s record if you meet eligibility requirements. For Social Security disability and retirement benefits, you have to be at least 62 years of age, married to your former spouse for at least 10 years, unmarried and not eligible for higher benefit amounts on your record. For survivors' benefits, you have to meet the above requirements except in certain circumstances. You don’t have to meet the marriage rule or be 62 years of age to receive survivors' benefits if you’re caring for your deceased ex-spouse’s minor or disabled children. You can also remarry after age 60 or age 50 if disabled and still qualify for survivors' benefits. Your Social Security benefit amounts follow the same guidelines as current spouses.

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