You don't have to work for a living to receive Social Security benefits. Even if you spent your life taking care of your house and your kids, your spouse's income can still entitle you to benefits. If your spouse dies, you can apply for widow's or widower's benefits -- but if you remarry, you may not get them.
You may not have to wait for retirement to get your benefits. If your spouse's child is under 16 or disabled and you're the caregiver, you can qualify for Social Security survivor benefits at any age. Otherwise, you can apply for reduced benefits when you turn 60, or wait a few years -- until you are 67 if you were born in 1962 or later -- for full benefits. The amount of your survivor benefits is based on the amount your spouse earned during her working life.
If your spouse is living, you can claim benefits for yourself on top of his Social Security income. The basic spousal benefit is 50 percent of his Social Security payments, or 75 percent if you're caring for a child. If you retire before full retirement age, your benefits get cut. At 62 -- the youngest age at which you can qualify for benefits -- you receive money equal to only 32.5 percent of your spouse's benefits.
Widow Versus Spouse
When you remarry before you turn 60 you lose the widow's or widower's benefits from your previous spouse. If you remarry when you're 60 or older (for disabled survivors, the cut-off age is 50) you can still receive survivor benefits. Once you turn 62, you can choose to get benefits based on your new spouse's earnings instead if they bring in more money. If you lost the right to survivor benefits from the previous marriage, your new spouse is your only option.
If you're 60 or older and not receiving benefits yet, the Social Security Administration will send you regular statements on what benefits you may qualify for. If you're younger, you must create an online account at the MyStatement page on the SSA website to get the information. You can also contact your local SSA office for help. The office can figure out if your spousal or survivor benefits are higher than your own and guide you toward the best deal.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.