Social Security spousal benefits: What to know

Social Security spousal benefits allow a current or former spouse to collect benefits based on the other spouse’s earnings record. The spousal benefits are as much as 50% of the other spouse’s benefits.

Read on to learn more about what Social Security spousal benefits are, how they work and what the eligibility requirements are.

Key takeaways

  • Spousal benefits are as much as 50% of the other spouse’s Social Security retirement benefits.

  • In most cases, someone must be at least 62 years old to claim spousal benefits.

  • Spousal benefits are typically reduced if someone starts collecting them before their own full retirement age.

  • Current spouses, ex-spouses and surviving spouses all might be eligible for Social Security benefits.

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What are Social Security spousal benefits?

A spouse can claim Social Security benefits based on their own work history or claim spousal benefits based on a current or former spouse’s work history. The spouse seeking benefits can opt for whichever type of benefits pay more money. However, someone cannot collect both types of benefits.

The Social Security Administration distributes spousal benefits every month to qualified recipients whose current or former spouse receives or is eligible to receive Social Security benefits.

Changes made in 1939 to the federal Social Security Act created spousal and survivor benefits. Those spousal benefits equaled as much as 50% of a retired spouse’s worker benefits. And the survivor’s benefits equaled 75%—now up to 100%—of a deceased spouse’s worker benefits.

In that era, many wage earners were husbands whose wives did unpaid labor at home. Therefore, federal lawmakers decided to provide Social Security benefits to spouses who didn’t work outside the home.

How do Social Security spousal benefits work?

The spouse claiming spousal benefits must be at least 62 years old, or they must have a child in their care who is under age 16 or who receives Social Security disability benefits. Someone seeking spousal benefits must wait to claim them until the worker files for benefits based on their own earnings record.

Someone can also apply for spousal benefits based on a former spouse’s work history even if the former spouse hasn’t retired. But this can only be done if the divorce took place at least two years before a claim is filed.

How much can you get from Social Security spousal benefits?

The most someone can receive in Social Security spousal benefits is 50% of the worker’s benefits. The maximum amount is available only if the person claiming spousal benefits waits until their full retirement age to file a claim.

Someone’s full retirement age depends on when they were born:

Birth year Age of full retirement
1943-1954 66
1955 66 and 2 months
1956 66 and 4 months
1957 66 and 6 months
1958 66 and 8 months
1959 66 and 10 months
1960 and later 67

If someone applies for spousal benefits after age 62 but before their full retirement age, the benefit amount will likely be lower—as little as 32.5% of the worker spouse’s maximum benefit amount. The only exception is if the spouse filing for spousal benefits is caring for a qualifying child.

Another nuance: If the working spouse takes Social Security before their full retirement age, their monthly benefit amount goes down. As a result, the spousal benefit amount also goes down. Lifetime benefits might be reduced even more if both spouses retire early.

Social Security spousal benefits calculator

Social Security spousal benefits are calculated according to how much the other spouse would get if they started receiving benefits at their full retirement age. The retirement age of the person seeking spousal benefits also feeds into the equation.

The Social Security benefits calculator can help you figure out the share of spousal benefits you can collect based on the working spouse’s earnings history. To come up with a figure, you must enter your date of birth and the month and year when you’d like to start receiving spousal benefits.

How do you qualify for Social Security spousal benefits?

Married couples, surviving spouses and divorced spouses all may be eligible to collect spousal benefits. However, certain requirements must be met before someone can claim Social Security spousal benefits.

Here are the rules for married couples:

  • The spouse claiming spousal benefits must be at least 62 years old or have a qualifying child in their care. A qualifying child refers to someone under 16 who receives Social Security disability benefits.

  • Spousal benefits aren’t available unless the spouse whose earnings record is being used is already receiving their retirement benefits.

  • The couple generally must have been married at least one year. The main exception is if the person claiming spousal benefits is the parent of a child of the spouse whose earnings record is being used to collect benefits.

Here are the rules for surviving spouses:

  • The widowed spouse must be at least 60 years old. The age drops to 50 for a survivor who has a qualifying disability.

  • The widowed spouse can claim 100% of the deceased spouse’s Social Security retirement benefits if they’ve reached their full retirement age. Benefit amounts are lower for those who take survivor benefits before reaching full retirement age.

  • A surviving divorced spouse can’t collect benefits if they remarried before age 60—age 50 if they have a qualifying disability—while they are married. If they remarry after age 60—after age 50 if they have a qualifying disability—they can file for benefits based on the deceased spouse’s earnings record.

  • Someone can receive survivor benefits at any age if they haven’t remarried and are taking care of a deceased spouse’s child who is under age 16, has a disability and receives Social Security disability benefits.

Qualifications for ex-spouses collecting Social Security spousal benefits

An ex-spouse can claim benefits based on the previous spouse’s earnings as long as they:

  • Are at least 62 years old.

  • Are unmarried.

  • Are divorced from the person who receives Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

  • Were married to the ex-spouse for at least 10 years before the divorce was finalized. If they later remarried, they can’t collect benefits based on a former spouse’s record unless the later marriage ended due to annulment, divorce or death.

Social Security spousal benefits FAQ

It’s important to know that there are a number of nuances regarding Social Security spousal benefits:

Two loopholes once enabled some people to increase the amount they could collect in spousal benefits. But those loopholes—the “deemed filing” loophole and the “file and suspend” loophole—have been closed:

  • Deemed filing: A federal law that took effect in 2016 closed the deemed filing loophole. Previously, some spouses collected spousal benefits at full retirement age while still allowing retirement benefits based on their earnings history to accumulate after they put off filing for their own benefits. Today, when someone applies for either retirement or spousal benefits, they are required to file for the other benefit.
  • File and suspend: The same law that affected deemed filing also affected the file-and-suspend strategy. Before that law, a worker at full retirement age or older could file for retirement benefits and then voluntarily suspend payment of their retirement benefits. This allowed spousal benefits to be paid to that worker’s spouse while the worker wasn’t receiving their own retirement benefits. The worker then could restart their own retirement benefits later and reap the extra money they gained by suspending the benefits. Closing the loophole did away with this strategy.

If someone qualifies for both retirement and survivor benefits, the Social Security program pays the retirement benefits first. If the amount of the spousal benefits is higher than the retirement benefits, the person will receive a combination of the two benefits that equals the higher amount.

Furthermore, the total amount is reduced if the person applying for spousal benefits receives a government pension and didn’t pay Social Security taxes. In this case, the spousal benefits are cut by two-thirds of the amount of the government pension.

However, if someone receives a foreign pension, their spousal benefits aren’t affected. But the foreign pension might eat into the person’s own retirement benefits.

Spousal benefits and survivor benefits aren’t the same. For instance, spousal benefits can start at age 62, while survivor benefits can start at age 60. Furthermore, spousal benefits are limited to 50% of the worker’s benefit amount, whereas survivor benefits are 100% of the worker’s benefit amount.
If your spouse dies, notify the Social Security Administration as soon as possible to find out about your survivor benefits.

Social Security spousal benefits in a nutshell

Generally, someone can claim Social Security spousal benefits if a current spouse is already collecting retirement benefits. However, the person seeking spousal benefits must meet certain requirements. For example, most people can’t file for spousal benefits until they’re at least 62 years old.

Different requirements apply to divorced and surviving spouses. It’s important to know the ins and outs of Social Security spousal benefits since they can help simplify your finances for retirement.

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