Rules for the Spouse
The first rule for obtaining benefits as a spouse is that you don't already qualify for higher benefits on your own record. The second rule is that you must be age 62 or older to obtain spouse's benefits. The only case in which you may obtain spouse's benefits under age 62 is if you're caring for your spouse's child who is also receiving benefits (a disabled child, for example). In addition to your monthly spouse's benefit, when you turn 65 you can also obtain Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly. Note that divorced spouses also qualify for benefits as long as they were married to the worker for at least 10 years.
Rules for the Worker
Before you can qualify for benefits on your working spouse's record, the worker must qualify. The worker must be at least 62 and typically have 40 work credits, or 10 years of work while paying Social Security taxes. If the worker was born before 1929, he will need fewer work credits to qualify. Although you can qualify for Retirement benefits at age 62, many people wait until full retirement age (65, 66 or 67 depending on birth year) to receive their maximum monthly benefit. If you obtain benefits at age 62, you and your spouse will receive reduced benefits.
Rules for Benefit Amounts
A spouse will usually receive up to half the worker's retirement benefit. For example, the average retirement benefit in March 2011 was $1,178. If the retired worker in the family receives this amount, then you, the spouse, will receive $589. However, one family cannot obtain more than 180 percent of the worker's benefit rate. If other family members are receiving benefits on the same worker's record, their benefits will be proportionately reduced to keep the family under the maximum. The worker's benefit amount will never be affected, however.
If you're ready to apply for Spouse's benefits, you may apply online, by phone or in person. Regardless of how you apply, you will need your basic personal information (Social Security number, date of birth, citizenship status) and spousal information (proof of marriage/divorce, spouse's Social Security number and date of birth).