Workers generally receive their own benefit based on their own work record IF that benefit is higher. Spouses may receive a spousal benefit from Social Security INSTEAD, IF the spousal benefit is higher, even if they worked very little (or they get a spousal benefit for not working at all – where “work” means paying into the Social Security system through the payroll tax).
But for spouses, what benefit would they receive? One from their current spouse? An ex-spouse? Or even a deceased current, or deceased ex-spouse?
Benefits as a spouse: “Even if you have never worked under Social Security, you may be able to get spouse’s retirement benefits if you are at least 62 years of age and your spouse is receiving retirement or disability benefits. You can also qualify for Medicare at age 65.”
What if you are divorced: “If you are divorced, but your marriage lasted 10 years or longer, you can receive benefits on your ex-spouse’s record (even if he or she has remarried) …” with conditions in order to qualify.
What if you are a worker’s survivor: “If you are the widow or widower of a person who worked long enough under Social Security …” you may receive benefits as early as age 60 (50 if disabled). If you remarry after you reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), your remarriage will not affect your eligibility for survivors benefits.
What If You’re The Worker’s Surviving Divorced Spouse: “If you are the divorced spouse of a worker who dies, you could get benefits just the same as a widow or widower, provided that your marriage lasted 10 years or more.”
What if you remarry: “If you remarry, you generally cannot collect benefits on your former spouse’s record unless your later marriage ends (whether by death, divorce or annulment). ” But, as you noticed above, if you wait until 60 or later (50 or later if disabled) you can still collect survivor benefits if your ex-spouse dies. Note, your spousal benefit will end when you remarry.
However, because you were entitled to a benefit prior to marriage, the new spousal benefit would start once you’re married throughout a month of marriage and you’d be entitled to spousal benefits off the new spouse’s record (even if it is lower); and, the new spouse would also need to be receiving their benefit (in other words, the worker and spouse rules apply again).
What if the ex dies? You would be eligible for the ex-survivor benefit IF it is larger than the current spousal benefit (and, if remarriage after the age 60/50 ages). In other words, only one benefit, the highest, will be paid from the many different worker records that may apply to you.
Moral of the story: The highest benefit you are eligible for is the one you receive from Social Security. So be sure you inform them of all the nuances of your situation (and ask them before going in what documents you need to bring as proof – especially if you have many changes in your life). Should your situation change yet again – that may mean you’re now eligible for a larger benefit still. It doesn’t hurt to ask Social Security to do a benefit comparison once again.