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Maximizing Social Security Spousal Benefits | (Full Guide)

Elderly Couple Resting On A Park Bench

You likely already know that you can receive Social Security retirement benefits as long as you work for a sufficient time. However, did you know that you might be eligible to receive Social Security benefits even if you never worked? Spousal benefits allow you to qualify for retirement benefits based on the work record of a spouse or ex-spouse, even if you don’t have enough work credits to be eligible for benefits on your own. Just like with regular retirement benefits, there are certain things you can do to maximize the amount of your spousal benefits. If you are wondering, “When can my spouse collect half of my Social Security?” then keep reading. We will give you all the details on maximizing your spousal benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

 

What Are Social Security Spousal Benefits?

Spousal benefits are Social Security benefits that a person can receive based on the work record of their spouse or ex-spouse. Once the primary beneficiary applies for benefits, their spouse might also be eligible to receive benefits. There is no work requirement to receive spousal benefits. This means that you can qualify for these benefits even if you have never paid Social Security taxes. If you qualify for both your own retirement benefit and spousal benefits, then you will receive the higher of the two benefit amounts.

Divorced spouses can also qualify for spousal benefits, and we will discuss the eligibility criteria in more detail in the next section. The amount of the monthly benefit that you receive will depend on a few factors, like your age, your spouse’s age, your spouse’s work history, and a few others. Lastly, you should know that you can switch from spousal benefits to survivor benefits if your spouse dies. This switch does not happen automatically, and you must notify the Social Security Administration of your spouse’s death.

Social Security Spousal Benefits Eligibility

Elderly Woman Reading Spousal Benefits Paper Letter Carefully

So, when can a spouse claim spousal benefits? For married couples, two main criteria must be met. First, your spouse must file for their own benefits. You cannot apply for spousal benefits until the primary beneficiary has already applied for benefits. Next, you must be at least 62 years old. While you can start your spousal benefits as early as age 62, waiting until full retirement age (FRA) will result in a larger monthly payment.

There is one exception to the age requirement mentioned above. If you are caring for a child of the primary beneficiary who is under 16 or disabled, you can start your spousal benefits at any age. So, even if you are only 40 years old, you could receive spousal benefits if you are caring for a child of the primary beneficiary.

Same-sex married couples are also entitled to the same spousal benefits from the Social Security Administration. Since their constitutional right to marriage has been affirmed by the Supreme Court, they are entitled to the same Social Security benefits as other couples. In some cases, those who are part of a civil union or other non-marital relationship might also be entitled to benefits.

If you are no longer married, you might still qualify for benefits based on the work record of your ex-spouse. The rules for qualifying for benefits based on your ex-spouse’s benefits get a little more complicated. First, the marriage must have lasted at least ten years. Next, you must not be remarried. You must generally be at least 62, and your ex-spouse must be old enough to qualify for benefits if they are still living. As long as you meet these criteria and the divorce occurred more than two years ago, you can apply for spousal benefits whether or not your ex-spouse has already applied for their own benefit. If the divorce occurred within the last two years, then you cannot apply for benefits unless your ex-spouse has already applied for their own benefit.

 

Calculating Social Security Spousal Benefits

So, how much Social Security does a non-working spouse get? As you might imagine, spousal benefits are based on the benefit amount of the primary beneficiary. In fact, these benefits are based on your spouse’s primary insurance amount – the amount they would receive if they started benefits at full retirement age. If you start your spousal benefits at full retirement age, then the calculation is pretty easy. You will receive 50% of your spouse’s full benefit amount. However, starting your benefits early will reduce your payment amount.

Remember that you can start your benefits as early as age 62. However, you will see roughly a half-percent decrease in your benefits for each month that you begin them early. If you start at age 62, you will only receive 32.5% of your spouse’s benefit amount instead of 50% of that benefit amount.

Unlike normal retirement benefits, you cannot increase your spousal benefits by waiting to claim them. There is no delayed retirement credit accrual for spousal benefits. So, there really is no reason to wait past your full retirement age to start your spousal benefits. The maximum that you can ever receive in spousal benefits is 50% of your spouse’s benefit.

There is one exception that you should know about when it comes to a reduction in your benefits. If you are caring for a disabled child of the primary beneficiary or a child of the primary beneficiary under 16, you will not see a reduction in your benefits based on your age. You will receive the full 50% benefit regardless of your age. For example, if you are only 40 years old but caring for a disabled child of the primary beneficiary, you will receive the maximum spousal benefit.

There is another way that your spousal benefits could be reduced as well. If you qualify for other government pensions, then your spousal benefits may be reduced. This is known as the government pension offset. Your spousal benefits will be reduced by two-thirds of your pension amount. For example, if you receive $300 each month from your pension, your spousal benefits would be reduced by $200 each month.

 

Spousal Benefits For Divorced Spouses

Senior Woman On Laptop Working On Maximizing Spousal Benefits

We already mentioned that the rules for divorced spouses could get complicated. Since some people may have several prior divorces, this can complicate the rules even further. Here is what you need to know about qualifying for benefits based on the earnings record of a former spouse.

Generally, the marriage must have lasted at least ten years to qualify for spousal benefits on the earnings record of your former spouse. Next, you must be currently unmarried. If you decide to remarry after the divorce, this could prevent you from getting spousal benefits on your former spouse’s record. However, you could still qualify for benefits based on the earnings record of your new spouse.

If your ex-spouse is still living, they must have already applied for benefits before you can apply for spousal benefits. There is one exception to this rule, though. If the divorce occurred more than two years ago, you could apply for benefits as long as your ex-spouse is old enough to qualify for benefits. There is no requirement that they actually have already applied for their benefits. Generally, this means that you and your ex-spouse must both be at least 62 years old.

 

Switching From Spousal Benefits To Survivor Benefits

If your spouse or ex-spouse is deceased, you might qualify for Social Security survivor benefits. These benefits are also sometimes called widow’s benefits. If you are already receiving spousal benefits based on your spouse’s work record when they die, you can switch to survivor benefits. First, you should know that survivor benefits are higher than spousal benefits—roughly double in most cases. For those already receiving spousal benefits when their spouse dies, you should immediately notify the Social Security Administration of the death. This will allow you to switch to the higher benefit as soon as possible. The switchover will not occur automatically, and the switch is generally not retroactive. This means that the longer you wait, the more benefits you lose out on.

You should also know that you could qualify for survivor benefits even if your spouse dies well before retirement age. As long as your spouse accumulated enough work credits during their lifetime, then you can qualify for survivor benefits after their death. You can start receiving survivor benefits as early as age 60, although waiting until full retirement age will get you the highest benefit. If you start your benefits at age 60, you will only receive about 71% of the deceased worker’s benefit. In some cases, you can even start your survivor benefits if you are at least age 50. This applies to disabled people who qualify for survivor benefits.

If you plan to get survivor benefits based on a deceased ex-spouse’s Social Security benefit, you should know the rules before you remarry. If you get remarried before you reach age 60, then you will no longer qualify for survivor benefits based on your ex-spouse’s work record. However, remarrying after age 60 will have no effect on your survivor benefits.

 

Social Security Strategies To Maximize Your Spousal Benefits

An elderly couple sitting on the couch researching social security spousal benefits.

Everyone wants to maximize their retirement income, and getting the most out of your spousal benefits is one way to do this. So, how can you maximize the amount of money you receive each month in spousal benefits? There are a few ways to do this, and here are the most common strategies.

 

— Married Couple Strategy

The best strategy for married couples usually depends on whether both spouses have their own work records. If both spouses have their own records, then the best strategy is for both spouses to wait as long as possible to start benefits. Waiting until age 70 will increase your own Social Security benefit as much as possible, and that amount is likely to be higher than any spousal benefits you might receive.

However, if one spouse did not work or does not have enough work history to qualify for their own benefits, the couple should still delay starting the primary earner’s benefits until age 70. This delay will ensure that the primary earner receives the highest benefit possible. The spouse may start their spousal benefits immediately upon reaching full retirement age, as the spousal benefit does not increase by waiting until later to start it.

 

— Strategy For Divorced Spouses

If you plan to apply for the divorced spouse benefit, you should wait until full retirement age to start your benefit. Remember that as long as the divorce occurred more than two years ago, your ex-spouse does not have to be receiving benefits for you to apply for spousal benefits. As long as your ex-spouse is old enough to qualify for benefits, you can go ahead and start your benefits. If you are still married but are considering a divorce, you should start your spousal benefits before the divorce is finalized. This will allow you to get around the two-year requirement mentioned above.

If you have been divorced more than once, you might qualify for spousal benefits based on the work history of more than one ex-spouse. Generally, the Social Security Administration will allow you to receive the highest benefit based on the ones for which you qualify.

 

— Strategy For Surviving Spouse

If possible, you should wait until full retirement age to start your survivor benefits, although you can start with reduced benefits as early as age 60. Remember that remarrying after age 60 will not affect your eligibility for survivor benefits based on the work record of your previous spouse. In situations where your current spouse earns more than your deceased spouse, you might need to consider switching to spousal benefits instead. This could lead to a higher amount each month if your current spouse has a significantly higher earnings record.

 

Social Security Spousal Benefit Loopholes

You may hear some people refer to the Social Security spousal benefit loopholes. These loopholes allowed retirees to maximize the amount of money they received each month from the Social Security Administration. However, you should know that these loopholes have now been closed by Congress, with only a couple of minor exceptions. Here are details about the loopholes and how you might still be able to take advantage of one of them.

 

— File And Suspend

This method allowed the primary earner to apply for their benefits but suspend payments until a later time. By doing this, their spouse could go ahead and apply for spousal benefits, while the primary earner’s benefit accrued delayed retirement credits. However, this loophole has been entirely closed. You can still apply for benefits and temporarily suspend your payments. However, any additional benefits associated with your earnings record are also suspended during this time. So, your spouse would no longer be able to receive spousal benefits while your benefits are suspended.

 

— Restricted Application

A restricted application allows retirees to restrict their application to one type of benefit. For example, some individuals would restrict their application to spousal benefits only. This would allow them to receive spousal benefits while accruing delayed retirement credits on their own earnings record. This loophole has been mostly closed as well, although there is an exception.

If you were born before 1954, you could still take advantage of this loophole. For those born after 1954, an application for any type of benefit is considered an application for all the benefits to which you are entitled. So, if you apply for spousal benefits, you are also applying for any benefits for which you might be eligible based on your own record. You will receive the higher benefit amount, but you cannot specifically choose which benefit you wish to apply for.

 

The Bottom Line

Spousal benefits allow you to receive Social Security benefits based on the work record of your spouse or ex-spouse. These benefits can help with retirement planning, even if you have never worked and paid Social Security taxes. The amount of the spousal benefit is based on the primary beneficiary’s benefit amount, and the spousal benefit is usually 50% of the primary insurance amount if you wait until full retirement age to start it.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What are the rules for spousal benefits of Social Security?

You can receive spousal benefits based on the work record of your current spouse, as long as you are at least age 62 and your spouse is already receiving Social Security retirement benefits. If you wait until full retirement age to start your spousal benefits, you will receive 50% of your spouse’s benefit amount. However, starting your benefits early will lead to a reduced benefit amount. You can even qualify for spousal benefits based on the work record of an ex-spouse, as long as the marriage lasted at least ten years and your ex-spouse is already receiving benefits. If the divorce occurred more than two years ago, then your ex-spouse only needs to be old enough to qualify for benefits and does not have to actually be receiving them yet.

 

How much does a spouse get of her husband’s Social Security?

A spouse is entitled to as much as 50% of her husband’s Social Security. An ex-spouse could even qualify for 50% as well. If the husband is deceased, a surviving spouse can qualify for up to 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit. Since the spouse’s benefit is based on the primary beneficiary’s benefit amount, you can see the importance of properly reporting and paying Social Security taxes and self-employment taxes during your working years.

 

Can you collect 1/2 of your spouse’s Social Security and then your full amount?

No, most people cannot collect a spousal benefit and later switch to the full amount of their own benefit. In the past, people utilized the restricted application loophole to accomplish this task. However, this loophole has been closed. Those born before 1954 might still be able to take advantage of this situation. These individuals may apply for spousal benefits while allowing their own benefits to accrue delayed retirement credits. They can later switch to their own benefit, which will result in a higher payment amount.

 

What happens to a spouse’s Social Security benefits when her husband dies?

If you are collecting spousal benefits and your spouse dies, you can switch your benefits to survivor benefits. This should lead to an approximate doubling of your payment each month. You must notify the Social Security Administration of the death. Your benefits will not be switched to survivor benefits automatically, and these benefits are usually not retroactive. The sooner you notify the SSA of the death, the sooner you can switch to the higher amount.

 

What is the difference between a widow’s benefit and a widower’s benefit?

There is no difference between a widow’s benefit and a widower’s benefit. Both of these would be considered survivor benefits. It makes no difference which spouse is the primary earner. A widow or widower may receive survivor benefits based on the earnings record of their deceased spouse, and there would be no difference in the calculation of the benefit. You can learn more about survivor benefits at SSA.gov.

Elliot Marks

Elliot Marks

Elliot has spent years providing clear and concise information to help navigate the complex nuances of social security and many other government services in the United States. Elliot has a passion for helping those in need of these services to be able to find timely access to news and information that is relevant and helpful to their daily lives.