Social Security: Maximizing Spousal Benefits // [3 Tips Inside]

Social Security provides a number of benefits to spouses of workers, although many people either do not know about these benefits or are unsure of exactly how they work. Who can qualify for these benefits, how much can a spouse receive, when can you begin receiving the benefits, and many more questions often arise. There is also the issue of deceased spouses and ex-spouses, so how is a spouse’s benefit affected by a death or divorce? If you or your spouse are considering Social Security benefits, then keep reading. This article will explain everything you need to know about qualifying for and receiving these important benefits.

Who Is Eligible For Social Security Spousal Benefits?

The name would imply that a spouse of a benefit recipient is eligible to receive these spousal benefits. While that is true, there are also some special cases which we will cover here. The most basic case of eligibility is the spouse of a benefit recipient. If your spouse qualifies for benefits, then you are entitled to spousal benefits as well. You must be 62 years of age or older and your spouse must have already filed for his or her own benefits. If you are entitled to your own benefits, then you will receive whichever amount is higher – either your own benefits or the spousal benefits.

These spousal retirement benefits also apply to same-sex married couples as well. Since the Supreme Court ruling in 2015, same-sex couples are entitled to the same benefits as all other couples. In some cases, the Social Security Administration also recognizes civil unions or other non-marital legal relationships. If you think you might qualify for benefits, then go ahead and apply.

Ex-spouses may also qualify for benefits, although there are a few additional rules that must be met in this case. First, the marriage must have lasted for at least 10 years. Next, you must not currently be married. Finally, the requirement that your spouse must already be receiving benefits is relaxed. If the divorce occurred more than two years ago, you can go ahead and file for spousal benefits whether or not your ex-spouse has already filed for benefits. This prevents an ex-spouse from not filing for benefits for the sole purpose of withholding benefits from you.

The last group of individuals who can qualify for these benefits are widows and widowers. As long as your spouse has 10 years of work credits, then you can qualify for benefits even if your spouse is nowhere near retirement age at the time of their passing. You can apply for these benefits as soon as age 60, although it pays to wait until full retirement age (FRA) if possible. Applying early will reduce the amount of the benefits that you will receive.

How Much To Expect From Spousal Benefits

The general answer to this is simple, although the devil is always in the details. Generally, the amount of your spousal benefits will be 50% of the amount of benefits to which your spouse is entitled. That is assuming that you wait until full retirement age to begin receiving your benefits. However, not everyone can afford to wait until age 67 to receive those benefits. That age is reduced to 66 for those whose birth year was before 1955.

To calculate your spousal benefits, you first need to know how much Social Security pays for primary benefits. This is a somewhat complex calculation based on your lifetime earnings record and any adjustments that are necessary. The more you make during your working years, the more you can expect to receive in benefits upon retirement. However, you should not expect that your income is going to be fully replaced with Social Security. The average Social Security retirement benefit in 2021 is $1,543 per month. So, half that and you find that the average spousal benefit is about $772. We will now examine a few factors that might cause your payment to be different.

Your spousal benefits will be based upon your spouse’s normal retirement benefits, regardless of when your spouse actually retires. You can file for these benefits as early as age 60, although you can expect quite the reduction in benefits if you file that early. The exception here is if you are caring for a disabled child. If caring for a child who is disabled, then your benefits will not be reduced. On the flip side, there is no reason to wait past your full retirement age to file for your benefits. These benefits can never be more than 50% of your spouse’s normal benefits, so waiting longer to file will not add anything additional to your benefit amount.

Spousal Benefits For Divorced & Widowed Spouses

If you are divorced or your spouse is deceased, you can still be eligible to receive monthly benefits because of your former spouse’s work history. Here we will cover the details of how each of these situations is handled.

Spousal Benefits For Divorced Spouses

Some people might think that getting divorced from your spouse prevents you from receiving these benefits in the future. However, that is not the case. You can still qualify for benefits based on your former spouse’s work credits and based upon their benefit amount. If you are entitled to your own retirement benefit, then you will receive the higher amount of the two. You should know that there are some requirements that you must meet to qualify for benefits if you are no longer married.

The first requirement is that your marriage must have lasted for at least 10 years. If you were married a shorter time than this, then you will not be able to claim benefits. Next, you must wait until at least age 60 to claim these benefits. Claiming benefits this early will result in a reduction of the benefits, so it is best to wait until full retirement age if at all possible.

The final requirement is that your former spouse must already have filed for or be receiving their benefits in most cases. If the marriage ended more than two years prior, then you can go ahead and claim your benefits whether your former spouse has filed for benefits or not.

Spousal Benefits For Widows & Widowers

These benefits are technically called survivor’s benefits, and there are some special rules that go along with them. The most important distinction here is that survivor’s benefits are equal to 100% of the deceased’s benefit amount. If your spouse is entitled to benefits and passes away, then you can be eligible for these benefits as long as the marriage lasted for 10 years or more. Even if your spouse dies well before retirement age, then you may still be eligible as long as your spouse had 10 years of work credits.

Again, to receive the full benefit amount, you must wait until your full retirement age to apply for benefits. You can apply as early as age 60, but the benefit may be reduced to as little as 71% of the normal benefit. You can never receive more than 100% of your deceased spouse’s benefit amount, so there is no need to wait past retirement age to apply for your benefits.

This situation can get somewhat tricky if you are currently receiving spousal benefits and your spouse passes away. You can convert your benefits to survivor’s benefits which will essentially double the amount that you receive and lead to a higher benefit. You should do this as soon as possible because the SSA will typically not make these payments retroactive. One final note to be aware of is the situation that may arise if you get remarried. If you remarry before age 60, then you will no longer be entitled to benefits from your deceased spouse.

3 Tips For Maximizing Your Spousal Benefits

Everyone wants to receive the maximum benefit possible, and that just makes sense. It makes retirement planning easier and gives you a little more room to breathe with your budget. After all, you or your spouse paid all those Social Security taxes during your years of working, so why not get as much as possible back from that? Here are some tips to maximize your benefits based on your specific situation.

1. Maximizing Benefits For Divorced Spouses

There are a couple of tips here to help you maximize the amount you will receive. First, do not get remarried! If you get remarried, then you will no longer qualify for spousal benefits from your ex-spouse. That will not only reduce your benefits, but it will cut them down to zero. Since the marriage must last for ten years before you qualify for spousal benefits, then it will take some time before you can qualify with your current spouse.

Next, wait until your full retirement age before applying for benefits. While you can apply as early as age 60, the sooner you claim your benefits, the lower your payments will be. The amount can be as little as 32% of your former spouse’s primary insurance amount, but if you wait until full retirement, then your amount will be 50%. So, the two largest takeaways here are do not get remarried and wait as long as possible to get your benefits.

2. Maximizing Benefits for Widowed Spouses

This situation can get a little trickier, especially if you have your own earnings record and can qualify for your own benefits. The first two suggestions are much the same as the last section. First, do not get remarried before age 60. If you do, then you can no longer claim survivor’s benefits from your deceased spouse. Likewise, waiting until full retirement age will entitle you to larger payments than if you apply as soon as age 60.

In certain situations, a surviving spouse might need to convert from spousal benefits to survivor’s benefits if your spouse dies after you begin receiving benefits. It is possible that you may convert from survivor’s benefits to the benefits from your own work history. Some people attempt to receive survivor’s benefits at age 67 and delay the start of their own benefits to age 70 in order to accrue delayed retirement credits on their own account. This increases the amount of their own benefits, and it might lead to a higher monthly payment. This was called a restricted application, but this Social Security spousal benefits loophole has been closed as of 2015. Now, if you make a claim for benefits, that claim covers all benefits to which you may be entitled.

3. Delay Your Claim For Benefits

This is a recurring theme, but delaying your claim for benefits will help ensure that you get the most money possible when you start receiving your Social Security payments. If you will be receiving spousal benefits or survivor’s benefits, there is no reason to delay your claim past your full retirement age. Those benefits are based on the normal benefit amount from your spouse, and they can never exceed 50% or 100% of that amount, respectively. However, delaying the start of your own benefits as late as age 70 will increase your normal benefit amount. In years past, you might have chosen to receive a benefit based on your spouse’s work record at age 67 while waiting to age 70 to claim your own Social Security benefits. This practice is, however, no longer allowed.

The Bottom Line

There are a few key takeaways here that we will highlight when it comes to receiving spousal benefits from Social Security. First, you need not be currently married to receive these benefits. Even if you are divorced or your spouse is deceased, you can still receive these benefits in many cases. Similarly, same-sex spouses are entitled to receive these benefits as well. Delaying the start of your benefits until full retirement age will ensure that you are receiving the most money possible from the benefit. While you can begin taking a reduced benefit as early as age 60, that does not make sense for most retirees. Lastly, if you think you might be entitled to benefits, then go ahead and apply! If you do not apply for the benefits, then you will certainly not receive them.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Are spousal benefits taxable?

Spousal benefits follow the same tax rules as primary Social Security benefits. Whether or not your benefits are taxed depends on your overall household income. If your combined income is less than $32,000, then you will not owe any income taxes on your benefits. If your income is between $32,000 – $44,000, then you will have to pay taxes on 50% of your benefits. Finally, if your income is above $44,000, then you will owe taxes on 85% of your benefits.

What is the difference between Spousal Benefits and Retirement Benefits?

These two items are very similar and quite related to one another. Retirement benefits are what you receive as a result of your own work history and payments into the Social Security system. This means that you were the earner, and you are getting benefits from the taxes you paid. Spousal benefits are provided to the spouse of the primary earner. These benefits are capped at 50% of the amount of the primary benefit, and a current or former spouse can receive these benefits in certain situations.

What is the maximum Spousal Benefit?

The maximum spousal benefit is 50% of the primary benefit. This assumes that you wait until your full retirement age to begin receiving the benefit. Some people choose to start receiving their benefits early. You can start this benefit as early as age 60, although the benefits will be reduced. At age 60, you would receive approximately 32% of the primary benefit. It pays to wait, as just a few number of months can make a noticeable difference in the amount that you will receive each month.

When can a spouse claim Spousal Benefits?

Generally, a spouse can start receiving these benefits as early as age 60 if the primary earner has already applied for their benefits. If the primary earner has not yet applied for their benefits, then the spouse must wait until that happens to apply for spousal benefits. The rules are a little different for those people who might be on disability benefits. If you are disabled, you can apply for spousal benefits as early as age 50. You also must have been married to your spouse for at least 10 years to claim these benefits.

Elliot Marks

Elliot Marks

Author & Social Security Advisor

Elliot Marks has spent over 10 years providing clear and concise information to help Americans 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.