Social Security spousal benefits

The Ultimate Guide to Social Security Spousal Benefits in 2020

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When most of us think about Social Security benefits, we think about earned benefits. Those are the ones we’ve earned based on our own work history and that we’ll collect in retirement. But Social Security is much broader than that. These payments are also meant in certain cases to support spouses, widows and widowers, ex-spouses and dependent children. 

Spousal benefits are those you can claim based on the work history of your spouse or ex-spouse. Even if you’ve never paid into Social Security or haven’t worked enough to qualify for your own benefits, you may still be eligible for spousal benefits.

If you qualify, the size of your benefit will equal at most 50% of your spouse or ex-spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA). PIA is the amount of Social Security benefits that your spouse is entitled to at his or her full retirement age (currently age 65 to 67, based on birth year). That means if your spouse’s PIA is $1,000, you would receive a maximum of $500.

If you’ve worked enough to qualify for your own Social Security benefits, you will receive whichever benefit is higher. If the spousal benefit is higher, you’ll get your earned benefit plus an additional amount to bring you up to that higher spousal benefit amount.

You can file for spousal benefits the same way you would earned benefits: on the Social Security Administration website, by phone at 1-800-772-1213, or by visiting a local Social Security office. Once approved, you would receive monthly payments by check or direct deposit.

Who is eligible for spousal benefits?

To claim Social Security spousal benefits, you’ll need to meet certain criteria, including being at least age 62 in most cases. Your spouse or ex-spouse also must be living.

The criteria for spousal benefits varies depending on whether you’re married or divorced. If you’re married, your spouse must already be collecting his or her Social Security benefits in order for you to claim spousal benefits. If you’re divorced, your benefits aren’t connected, so you can claim spousal benefits even if your ex isn’t collecting Social Security yet and you do not need the consent of your ex-spouse. Both of you, however, must be at least age 62. If you’ve been divorced more than once, your benefit can be based on your highest-earning spouse if that marriage meets the qualifications.

If you’re married, to qualify for spousal benefits you must:

  • Have an earned benefit that is lower than your potential spousal benefit
  • Be married for at least one year 
  • Be age 62 or taking care of a child who is age 16 or younger or disabled, who is the child of your spouse and who is also receiving Social Security benefits based on the spouse’s work record

If you’re divorced, to qualify for spousal benefits you must:

  • Have been married to the relevant ex-spouse for at least 10 years
  • Have been divorced for two years before you claim
  • Be age 62 or older (the same goes for your ex-spouse)
  • Be unmarried (your ex, however, can be remarried)

How Social Security Spousal Benefits are Calculated

The amount of your spousal benefit will largely depend on your spouse’s earnings history and how old you are when you claim your spousal benefits. If you claim your benefits before your full retirement age, your benefits will be permanently reduced based on the number of months until you reach that age.

With spousal benefits, it doesn’t matter if your spouse starts collecting Social Security before or after he or she reaches full retirement age — your benefit stays the same. 

Applying for spousal benefits: The process

When applying for Social Security spousal benefits, we recommend using a Social Securit checklist and going step by step, but below is a summary. 

Here’s how it works when you file for spousal benefits:

  • The Social Security Administration first pays out benefits on your own earnings record if you qualify.  Typically, that means you’ve paid into Social Security for at least 10 years over the course of your life.
  • The Social Security Administration then calculates half of your spouse’s PIA and adjusts it based on when you claim spousal benefits. (As with earned benefits, you’ll receive less than the full benefit if you decide to claim them before full retirement age. Hower, with spousal benefits, your benefit doesn’t increase once you reach full retirement age). 
  • Spousal benefits also aren’t affected by your spouse claiming his or her benefits before or after full retirement age, since spousal benefits are based on your spouse’s PIA and your age when claiming them. 
  • Any benefits you receive as a spouse won’t decrease your spouse’s retirement benefit.
  • If you continue to work while receiving benefits, the retirement benefit earnings limit still applies until you reach full retirement age. For 2019, the earnings test limit is $17,640. Before you reach full retirement age, the Social Security Administration deducts $1 from your benefits for every $2 you earn above the annual limit.
  • If you receive a pension based on work not covered by Social Security, like government work, you can still collect Social Security spousal benefits, but the amount will be reduced. The Government Pension Offset rule reduces spousal benefits by one-third of the public pension amount. 

Retirement age matters

Spousal benefits are reduced by 25/36 of 1% for each month before your full retirement age, up to 36 months early, per the Social Security Administration. Benefits that are taken more than 36 months early are reduced an additional 5/12 of 1%. Your full retirement age is based on your birth year:

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

So if you claim at age 62, your earliest opportunity, you could receive as little as 32.5% of your spouse’s PIA. That permanently reduces your spousal benefits, and if that means your spouse also took his or her Social Security benefits early, your survivor benefits (those you can claim if your spouse dies) also will be permanently reduced. When you reach full retirement age, you are eligible for 50% of your spouse’s PIA. The Social Security Administration offers a calculator to figure out the size of your spousal benefits depending on when you claim them.

Spousal benefits don’t grow after full retirement age

Unlike earned benefits, which grow 8% every year between your full retirement age and age 70, your spousal benefit does not increase once you’ve reached full retirement age.

Spousal Benefits vs. Survivor benefits

There are many differences between spousal benefits and survivor benefits, but as a starting point, to be eligible for spousal benefits, your spouse or ex-spouse must still be living while survivor benefits are for people whose spouse or ex-spouse has died. 

If your spouse or ex-spouse dies and has earned benefits that are higher than yours, you could be eligible for survivor benefits. The size of survivor benefits is based on your spouse or ex-spouse’s earnings, your full retirement age and whether your spouse or ex was receiving reduced benefits (meaning they started taking Social Security before they reached full retirement age). 

The full retirement age by birth year (for survivors) is also different than for other Social Security benefits.

1939 or earlier: 65

1940: 65 and 2 months

1941: 65 and 4 months

1942: 65 and 6 months

1943: 65 and 8 months

1944: 65 and 10 months

1945-1956: 66

1957: 66 and 2 months

1958: 66 and 4 months

1959: 66 and 6 months

1960: 66 and 8 months

1961: 66 and 10 months

1962 and later: 67

You can claim survivor benefits as young as age 60, versus age 62 for most other Social Security benefits. There are also other scenarios where you can claim survivor benefits at a younger age (and a reduced percentage) such as cases where you are taking care of a child under the age of 16 or you are disabled. 

With survivor benefits, you also are allowed to file restricted applications (applying just for your own earned benefits or just for survivor benefits, instead of having to apply for both at once) even if you haven’t hit full retirement age yet, regardless of the year you were born.

Social Security Spousal Benefits Laws

A recent law has changed the way many people can claim spousal benefits. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 closed two closely related Social Security spousal benefits loopholes mainly used by married couples. 

Understanding ‘deemed filing’

Prior to the law change, people who were eligible for earned benefits and spousal benefits were required to file for both at the same time, a practice known as deemed filing. But that was only until they reached full retirement age. Once they hit full retirement age, if they hadn’t claimed any benefits, they could claim just their spousal benefits. In that situation, many people took their spousal benefits, but delayed taking their own earned benefits so that they could rack up delayed retirement credits until they turned 70.

The 2015 law, however, changed the rules so that anyone born on Jan. 2, 1954 or later is affected by deemed filing even after he or she reaches full retirement age. Which means when someone files for one benefit, they are filing for both, and will only receive the higher of the two amounts with no opportunity to switch later.

People born on Jan. 1, 1954 or earlier, however, can still file a restricted application for just one benefit until they’ve reached full retirement age.

The exceptions

There are two exceptions where deemed filing doesn’t apply. One is if you’re taking care of a child who is younger than 16 or who is disabled and the other is if you receive spousal benefits and are also entitled to disability. In those cases you can file a restricted application for spousal benefits without also applying for earned benefits.

Understanding ‘file and suspend’

The second loophole that the law ended was a practice called file and suspend. File and suspend was a popular method used by married couples to get the most out of their Social Security benefits. In that scenario, the higher earning spouse would file for earned retirement benefits when he or she reached full retirement age, but then suspend those benefits. His or her spouse, however, was still allowed to start collecting spousal benefits. Meanwhile, the higher earning spouse would delay taking Social Security for as long as possible to grow their earned benefits.

Under the new law (which affected everyone going forward, regardless of birth year) if your spouse suspends his or her earned benefits, your spousal benefits also will be suspended. The one exception is divorced couples. People receiving spousal benefits based on ex-spouses will continue to get their benefits even if the spouse suspends theirs. 

Strategies to Maximize Your Spousal Benefits

When you take your spousal benefits plays a big role in getting the most of your benefits. If you claim before you reach your full retirement age  you stand to permanently lower your monthly benefit and even your survivor benefit. 

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 ended some of the strategizing around spousal benefits, but there are still some factors to consider to get the most out of your benefits.

  • If you were born before Jan. 2, 1954, and haven’t claimed your own benefits yet, you can file a restricted application for spousal benefits at your full retirement age. For this to work, your spouse must have already filed for his or her benefits. This strategy would let you start receiving spousal benefits, while delaying taking your earned benefits, causing them to grow. When you turn 70, you would then switch to those earned benefits (assuming they are larger).
  • If you were born on Jan. 2, 1954 or later, and you are married, the higher earning spouse may want to try and delay claiming his or her benefits until age 70 to increase the benefit with delayed retirement credit. Keep in mind, this may mean delaying when you can take your own spousal benefits, missing out a few years of those payments. 
  • If you’re divorced, you’ll get the maximum spousal benefit, 50%, if you wait to reach your full retirement age. But you have the advantage of not needing to wait for your ex to file for his or her own benefits first.

Spousal benefits can play an important role in a comfortable retirement. The big takeaway is that in most cases it pays to wait until you reach your full retirement age to claim your benefits. But if you’re married, you’ll also have to run some calculations and consider and decide when you and your spouse should start collecting benefits based on varying income history, age, health, and life expectancy. 

Have more questions about Social Security retirement benefits? Check out our comprehensive guide.