Marriage makes you one in spirit, but not always in finance. If you and your spouse both work, you can both get your own Social Security checks. Of you're a stay-at-home spouse, you can get money based on your partner's work history. Even when both your benefits are based on the same income, you still receive two separate payments.
How You Earn It
The Social Security Administration bases your benefits on your work history. Every year you earn a minimum amount, you get a credit. As of 2013, earning $1,160 gets you one credit and you can earn up to four credits a year. Everyone born after 1929 has to have 40 credits -- 10 years of work -- to earn retirement benefits. Earning more in a year doesn't give you more credits but it does increase your benefits.
Spouses who don't work can collect Social Security based on their partner's work history. Your stay-at-home spouse, for example, can get a Social Security benefit based on a percentage of your own earnings. If she did work but her benefits are less than she can claim as your spouse, SSA pays her the spousal amount. There are several requirements for taking spouse benefits. For example, your spouse has to be either 62 years old or taking care of a dependent child.
Social Security won't actually cut you a check for your benefits -- new retirees all have to use direct deposit to get their money. If you and your spouse both get benefits, you both get payments. That applies whether your spouse has his own earnings history or gets paid based on your benefits. Of course there's nothing to stop you using a joint bank account, in which case both of you have access to each others' benefit payments.
If you've gone from spouses to exes, your benefits are truly separate. If your ex's benefits is based on your earnings, she can still receive those benefits after you divorce, provided she meets SSA conditions, such as being 62 or older and married at least 10 years. The amount she gets has no effect on how much you and your current spouse, if you have one, receive. Benefits to your ex stop if she remarries, though she can still claim benefits based on her own income.
A Durham, NC resident, Fraser has written about law, starting a business, balancing your budget and fighting evictions, among other legal and financial topics.