Retirement Planning Retirement PlanningRetirement Planning
Advice on how to prepare for life after government.

The Benefits of Social Security

We all know that Social Security provides benefits for workers -- that is, people who have paid Social Security taxes on their own earnings. But do you understand how Social Security also benefits workers' families?

When you start receiving your own Social Security retirement benefits, your spouse, dependent children and former spouse also may be eligible for benefits based on your work record. When you die, certain members of your family may be eligible for Social Security survivor's benefits. These include widows, widowers (and divorced widows and widowers), children and dependent parents. Likewise, you may be the beneficiary of someone else's Social Security payments.

I've listed some of the basic eligibility rules for spouses, widows and widowers, former spouses and children below. You can learn more about these benefits by visiting the Social Security Web site. If you think you are eligible for benefits based on someone else's record, you should contact SSA at 800-772-1213 to make an appointment to discuss the options that are available to you. Because of reductions and credits based on your age and the age of the worker, the timing of your application can affect the value of your lifetime benefits. If you are eligible for benefits, you should not delay applying since the benefits are not always payable retroactively.

But before we go any further, here's a note for those covered by the Civil Service Retirement System: Under CSRS, the Social Security spousal benefits you may be entitled to can be reduced or eliminated because of the Government Pension Offset. The GPO does not affect your spouse's entitlement to their own earned Social Security benefits or the Social Security spousal benefits that you've earned for them as long as they are not entitled to a CSRS benefit of their own.

Spouses and Families

Suppose Bob, 55, married Lorraine, 42, and they had two children, Megan and Travis. If Bob retires at age 66 and applies for his Social Security retirement benefits, Lorraine (now 53), Megan (11) and Travis (9) all will be eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on Bob's work record. Each will be eligible for up to 50 percent of Bob's earned benefit. (If Lorraine is working, her benefits may be reduced by an annual earnings limit.) When Megan and Travis turn 16, Lorraine's benefits will stop until she turns 62. Megan and Travis will be eligible for benefits until they graduate from high school.

Even if he or she has never worked under Social Security, your spouse:

  • Can begin collecting a reduced benefit as early as age 62.
  • Can qualify on your record for Medicare at age 65.
  • If caring for your child who is receiving benefits, can receive the full one-half benefit amount no matter what your spouse's age is.

If your spouse is eligible for retirement benefits on his or her own record, Social Security will pay that amount first. But if the benefit on your record is a higher amount, he or she will get a combination of benefits that equals that higher amount (reduced for age).

A spouse who has reached full retirement age (65 to 67, depending on year of birth) and is eligible for a spouse's benefit and his or her own retirement benefit can choose to receive only the spouse's benefits and delay receiving retirement benefits until later.

When you choose to start your retirement benefits also affects the amount your surviving spouse may receive. If you start your benefits before full retirement age, Social Security doesn't pay your surviving spouse the full benefit amount from your record. Also, if you choose to receive a reduced benefit before full retirement age on your own record, you are not entitled to the full spouse's benefit rate upon reaching full retirement age.

Widows and Widowers

About 5 million widows and widowers currently receive monthly Social Security benefits based on their deceased spouse's earnings record. Widows and widowers who have not remarried can receive full benefits at their full retirement age or older, or reduced benefits as early as. They can begin receiving benefits as early as age 50 if they are disabled.

If you are receiving widows, widowers, or divorced widows or widowers benefits, you can switch to your own retirement benefit as early as 62, assuming you are eligible for benefits and your retirement rate is higher than your rate as a widow or widower.

In many cases, a widow or widower can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then, at full retirement age, switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate.

Divorced Spouse

If you are divorced (even if you have remarried), your ex-spouse may qualify for benefits on your record if you are 62 or older. To do so, your ex-spouse must have been married to you for at least 10 years, be at least 62 years old, be unmarried and not be eligible for an equal or higher benefit on his or her own Social Security record (or someone else's).

If you are eligible for retirement benefits but have not yet applied and have been divorced for at least two years, your divorced spouse still may be able to collect benefits on your Social Security record.


About 3.8 million children receive approximately $1.6 billion each month because one or both of their parents are disabled, retired or deceased. Your biological or adopted children and dependent stepchildren are eligible for such benefits. (In some cases, your child also could be eligible for benefits on his or her grandparents' earnings.)

To get benefits, a child must have a parent who is disabled or retired and entitled to Social Security benefits, or a parent who died after having worked long enough in a job where he or she paid Social Security taxes.

Also, the child must be unmarried, under 18 (or 18 to 19 years old and a full-time student at no higher than grade 12), or 18 or older and disabled.

Tammy Flanagan is the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars. She has spent 25 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits.


Tammy Flanagan has spent 30 years helping federal employees take charge of their retirement by understanding their benefits. She runs her own consulting business at and provides individual counseling as well as online training for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, Plan Your Federal Retirement as well as the Federal Long Term Care insurance Program. She also serves as the senior benefits director for the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc., which conducts federal retirement planning workshops and seminars.

For more retirement planning help, tune in to "For Your Benefit," presented by the National Institute of Transition Planning Inc. live on Federal News Radio on Mondays at 10 a.m. ET on WFED AM 1500 in the Washington-metro area. Archived shows are available on

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.